Several factors contributed to the decline of prominent infectious diseases throughout history, but vaccines have been vital to stopping their spread.
A graphic has been widely shared on several unverified news sites and social media channels stating that cases of whooping cough, Diptheria, measles, typhoid fever, and polio all declined before vaccines were introduced. On the anti-vaccination website "Learn The Risk" the graph is shown alongside links to a report from the CDC, which the authors claim is evidence to suggest that vaccines are not needed. However, the website deliberately misrepresents the findings and literature in the report, while many of the statements on the website are incorrect.
For example, the article claims that the CDC credits "clean water, not the vaccine" for a drop in cholera and typhoid. This is untrue. The CDC credits the accessibility of clean water to the public as one of medicine's "greatest achievements" but does not favor it over the vaccine. The CDC notes that in 1900, the occurrence of typhoid fever in the United States was approximately 100 cases per 100,000 people. By 1920, it had decreased to 33.8 cases per 100,000 people. In 2006, it had decreased to 0.1 cases per 100,000 people. The typhoid vaccine was manufactured in 1896 and rolled out in 1909, while drinking water and sanitation improved in 1908. It is misleading to state that the vaccine was ineffective.
A graph from Our World In Data shows that cases of Polio peaked in the U.S. in the year 1952, with 57,879 cases. Once the vaccine became widely available in 1955, this figure dropped to 29,000 cases. So, to claim that polio cases were dropping significantly before this point is incorrect.
More than 15,000 Americans died from diphtheria in 1921, before there was a vaccine. Only two cases of diphtheria have been reported to CDC between 2004 and 2014. Meanwhile, an epidemic of rubella (German measles) in 1964-65 infected 12½ million Americans, killed 2,000 babies, and caused 11,000 miscarriages. Since 2012, 15 cases of rubella were reported to CDC.
All these examples show that several public health policy actions must be taken in order to stop the spread of infectious diseases, but vaccines are still one of the most effective, preventative measures. The graph also fails to account for the growing numbers of people who are vaccinated against infectious disease, which will increase over time and further stop the spread of the virus, and the length of time between the manufacture of a vaccine and its roll out to the public.
We also know that many of these diseases still exist in other countries. The CDC noted that 90 percent of measles cases in the U.S were associated with cases imported from outside of the U.S. However, the fact that over 90 percent of children in the U.S have been vaccinated against measles has prevented the disease from becoming endemic.
As such, the graph stating that many diseases were in decline before vaccines were introduced is both false and deeply misleading.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to a lot of potentially dangerous misinformation. For reliable advice on COVID-19, including symptoms, prevention, and available treatment, please refer to the World Health Organization or your national healthcare authority.