Deaths among under-fives would be 45% higher in less developed countries without just 10 vaccines, study suggests

Alexandra Thompson
·4 min read
Dialing medicine into syringe from glass bottle. Ampoule and syringe needle close-up. Selective soft focus. Text copy space
Vaccines save millions of lives every year. (Stock, Getty Images)

The life-saving efficacy of vaccines has been reaffirmed in new research.

An effective immunisation programme has long been hailed as a route out of the pandemic, with three coronavirus jabs being approved in the UK.

Despite most being extremely eager to return to the lives we once knew, a global study by the communications firm Edelman previously revealed just over one-third of those surveyed would be unwilling to have a coronavirus vaccine within the next year.

To demonstrate the efficacy of jabs, scientists from the University of Cambridge modelled the impact of 10 vaccination programmes in 98 low or middle-income countries.

Read more: Coronavirus vaccines are safe

Results, published in The Lancet, suggest deaths among children under five would be 45% higher if these 10 jabs were absent.

Across all ages, vaccines against these diseases – which include measles, rubella and yellow fever – are set to save 69 million deaths in less developed nations alone between 2000 and 2030.

This comes as cabinet office minister Michael Gove has reassured there “will be no interruption” to UK coronavirus vaccine supplies after the EU urged jab manufacturer AstraZeneca to supply it with doses from UK plants.

Dr Edward Jenner (1749-1823) performing his first vaccination against smallpox on James Phipps, a boy of eight, May 14, 1796, oil on canvas by Ernest Board (1877-1934), 1920-1930, United Kingdom, 20th century.
Edward Jenner, the 'father of immunology', is depicted performing the first vaccination against smallpox on eight-year-old James Phipps in May 1796. (Getty Images)

“There has been a much-needed investment in childhood vaccination programmes in low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs) and this has led to an increase in the number of children vaccinated,” said study author Dr Caroline Trotter.

Read more: Just 52% of Britons 'strongly agree' vaccines are safe

“To inform future investment and ensure it continues we need to evaluate the impact of these programmes on public health.

“Our modelling has provided robust evidence on the effectiveness of vaccination programmes in LMICs and indicated what might be lost if current vaccination programmes are not sustained.”

Watch: UK’s coronavirus vaccine supply is assured, says Gove

The scientists applied multiple models to the following infections: hepatitis B, Haemophilus influenzae type b, human papillomavirus (HPV), Japanese encephalitis measles, Neisseria meningitidis serogroup A, Streptococcus pneumoniae, rotavirus, rubella and yellow fever.

The models were based on vaccine coverage and effectiveness, as well as deaths caused by the diseases the jabs prevent.

The results reveal vaccines against these 10 major infections have a “substantial impact on public health in LMICs”.

Between 2000 and 2019, the jabs prevented an estimated 37 million deaths, which is set to rise to 69 million in 2030.

The immunisation programmes mean babies born in 2019 have a 72% lower risk of death from the 10 infections over their life, compared to these vaccines being absent.

This impact is most pronounced in the under-five age group.

Read more: Why are fewer people getting vaccinated?

The measles vaccine was found to have the largest effect overall, warding off 56 million deaths between 2000 and 2030.

In 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the UK had “eliminated measles” based on 2014/16 data.

This was reversed when 989 confirmed cases came to light in England and Wales in 2018.

NHS Digital data later revealed just 90.6% of youngsters aged two had received the first dose of the measles jab in 2019/20, falling short of the WHO’s 95% immunisation target.

“Our study signifies the huge public health benefits that can be achieved from vaccination programmes in low-income and middle-income countries,” said co-author Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London.

“By projecting up until 2030 in these 98 countries we have provided insight on where investments in vaccine coverage should be directed to achieve further gains, for example increasing HPV coverage in girls and pneumococcal conjugate vaccines coverage in children under five will have the most impact according to our modelling.”

Vaccine hesitancy ‘top 10 threat to global health’

The invention of vaccines as we know them took place in the 18th century.

Edward Jenner, “the father of immunology”, noticed milkmaids who overcame the mild cowpox virus did not develop the more serious smallpox.

Jenner inserted pus from a cowpox pustule into an eight-year-old boy’s arm, leaving him immune to smallpox.

By 1820 smallpox deaths in London had significantly fallen, however, Victorians still took to the streets opposing compulsory jabs.

Perhaps the most alarmist story was the much discredited link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism, published in 1998.

Former gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield mistakenly linked the jab to autism in the journal The Lancet.

The paper has since been retracted and Wakefield struck off, with his data being called “bogus”, as well as “fatally flawed both scientifically and ethically”.

Vaccines are said to have prevented at least 10 million deaths worldwide between 2010 and 2015 alone.

Despite the enormous success of immunisation, public mistrust is a growing issue, with the WHO declaring vaccine hesitancy one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019.

Amid the pandemic, experts have repeatedly stressed coronavirus vaccines have not been rushed.

The studies that led to the jabs’ approval demonstrate the vast majority of side effects are mild and fleeting.

Watch: Coronavirus vaccine myths debunked