7 diseases that vaccines have all but eliminated in the U.S.

First- and second-graders line up for Salk Polio vaccine shots on April 23, 1955. (Bettmann)

People have opinions about vaccines.

It’s something we’ve seen debated for decades, but now that we have multiple vaccines available to help fight COVID-19, it’s a hot button topic once again.

Perhaps as COVID-19 vaccines roll out and are made available to all of the public, maybe we’ll hear people change their stances on the matter.

Regardless of where anyone stands on the matter, we know that vaccinations have been protecting us from diseases for decades. Here are seven examples:

1. Chickenpox

For those of us who were born in the 20th century, most have faint memories of having itchy chickenpox all over our bodies and taking oatmeal baths to relieve the discomfort. Now, that’s just a story we’ll tell our children or grandchildren one day.

Chickenpox, which causes an itchy rash of blisters, could give someone up to 500 blisters all over the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A 4-year-old boy with chicken pox has his temperature taken, circa 1955. (Photo by /FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) (FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Though it is usually mild in children, it can be incredibly uncomfortable. And it can still cause serious problems in some cases, such as skin infections, dehydration, pneumonia and encephalitis, which is swelling of the brain. And once you’ve had the virus, it lives in your body, making you susceptible to getting shingles later in life.

It’s easily transmissible and there is no cure. There’s also no way of knowing who will have a serious case.

In 1995, the chickenpox vaccine was added to the immunization schedule for children. A booster was added in 2006.

Now, parents are encouraged to get their children one dose of the vaccine between the ages of 12 months and 15 months. The second dose is given between the ages of 4 and 6.

The CDC says about 9 out of 10 children who get both doses will be completely protected from the chickenpox.

Click here to learn more.

2. Diphtheria

Diphtheria, also coined as the “plague among children,” was named in 1826, long before it got a vaccine in the 1920s.

An infected person could have a sore throat, loss of appetite, fever and, most notably, a formation of a thick gray substance — called a pseudomembrane — that would cover the nasal tissues, tonsils, larynx and/or pharynx, according to the CDC.

The pseudomembrane, formed from waste products and proteins caused by a toxin secreted by the bacteria, could obstruct breathing. And the toxin could travel to the heart, muscles, kidneys and liver. That could lead to complications that would include damage to the heart, inflammation of nerves, paralysis, respiratory failure, pneumonia, airway obstruction and ear infection, according to the CDC.

A poster depicts two health care professionals attending to a girl in a hospital bed while a young girl standing outside advocates for diphtheria immunization.

In 1921, the United States recorded 206,000 cases, which resulted in 15,520 deaths, according to the History of Vaccines website.

The death rate for those younger than the age of 5 and older than the age of 40 who contracted diphtheria was about 20%, while those in between had a death rate of 5% to 10%. In the 1930s, it was the third-leading cause of death in children in England and Wales.

Starting in the 1920s, the United States, along with other countries that vaccinate widely, saw a dramatic drop in diphtheria rates when an effective immunization was finally introduced.

There are several rounds of the vaccine that protect against diphtheria. The childhood immunization schedule includes five immunizations before the age of 6, then one booster during the adolescent years.

Click here to learn more.

3. Measles

The measles, though first accounted for in the 9th century, became a nationally notifiable disease in the United States in 1912, according to the CDC. Beginning in the early 20th century, U.S. health care providers and labs were required to report all diagnosed cases.

During the first decade of reporting cases, an average of 6,000 measles-related deaths were reported each year.

While typical symptoms can consist of high fever, runny nose, cough, red watery eyes, a rash, and white spots inside the mouth, complications can show up in the form of ear infections, diarrhea, pneumonia and encephalitis (swelling of the brain).

The CDC estimates that as many as one in 20 children with measles gets pneumonia, which is the most common cause of death from measles in young kids.

A rare but fatal disease, subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, or SSPE, is a disease of the central nervous system that can result from a measles virus earlier in life. It can develop seven to 10 years after a person has seemingly fully recovered from the illness.

Measles outbreaks continue to occur in areas around the world. And even though it had been eliminated in the U.S., there have been a couple of documented outbreaks.

One occurred in New York City and New York state around the end of September 2018, the CDC says. The end of the outbreak was declared in October 2019.

In a separate and earlier outbreak, in 2014, after an uncharacteristically high number of measles cases out of California made headlines, the outbreak quickly became a multi-state health incident and was linked to Disneyland Resort Theme Parks. The CDC reported that majority of the total 147 cases were people who had not been vaccinated against the disease.

The CDC says that, from year to year, measles cases can range from roughly fewer than 100 to a couple hundred, adding that almost everyone who has not had the MMR shot will get measles if they are exposed to the virus.

Click here to learn more.

4. Mumps

Like other diseases, there are some who get the mumps and show no symptoms, and there are people who can have a slew of complications.

Mumps causes parotitis, which is when the salivary glands, under the ears on one or both sides, become swollen, causing puffy cheeks and a tender, swollen jaw. It was common to see people who suffered from the symptoms wearing a piece around their face, as pictured below.

Five members of a family -- all sick with the mumps -- watch from windows as other youngsters play.

Patients might also experience fever, headache, muscles aches, tiredness and a loss of appetite.

In some events, more severe cases could include deafness and inflammation of the:

  • Testicles
  • Ovaries
  • Pancreas
  • Brain
  • Tissue covering the brain

The CDC says anyone who was born during or after 1957 who has never had the mumps or has not been vaccinated is at risk of contracting the illness.

While there has been a more than 99% decrease in mumps cases in the U.S. since 1967, there are still outbreaks that occur, particularly in settings in which people have close, prolonged contact with someone who has it.

The CDC says even people who have been vaccinated — ones who, perhaps, had immune systems that didn’t respond as it should have to the vaccine, or if their immune system’s ability to fight the infection decreased over time — might contract the mumps.

Regardless, health experts encourage getting the vaccine, as it is still the best way to decrease your chances of getting the mumps.

Doctors recommend children get two doses — one between the ages of 12 months and 15 months, and the second between the ages of 4 and 6.

Click here to learn more.

5. Polio

As polio outbreaks increased in the late 1940s, people became frightened to let their children outside to play, especially during summers, when the virus seemed to peak.

Travel between cities was sometimes restricted, and quarantines were imposed.

According to the CDC, polio was once one of the most feared diseases in the U.S.

Symptoms can include sore throat, fever, tiredness, nausea, headache and stomach pain. More severe complications include paresthesia, the feeling of pins and needles in the legs; meningitis, an infection of the covering of the spinal cord and/or brain; and paralysis, which could lead to permanent disability and death.

The CDC says between two and 10 people out of 100 who have paralysis from polio die because the virus affects the muscles that help them breathe.

In the post-polio syndrome, even people who seem to fully recover can develop new weakness, muscle pain or paralysis as adults, 15 to 40 years later.

Before vaccines, the virus caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis each year.

In some cases, a patient may have been put in an iron lung (pictured below), also known as a tank ventilator, which enclosed most of a person’s body and stimulated breathing.

Between the years of 1955 and 1963, when two different types of vaccines were introduced, the cases quickly fell to fewer than 100 in the 1960s and fewer than 10 in the 1970s, according to the CDC.

The CDC credits the polio vaccine, as well as health care professionals and parents who vaccinate their children, for the elimination of polio in the U.S. for more than 30 years. What does that mean? Since 1979, there have been no polio cases that originated in the U.S.

Health experts recommend children get four doses of the polio vaccine. The doses are given at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months through 18 months and then a booster between the ages of 4 and 6.

Click here to learn more.

Two little girls lay in Iron Lung Machines while being treated for Polio.

6. Rubella

Though rubella causes few noticeable symptoms in children, those who do have symptoms typically get a rash first. It starts on the face and spreads to the rest of the body. Possible to follow is a low-grade fever, headache, mild pink eye, general discomfort, swollen and enlarged lymph nodes, a cough and runny nose.

However, according to the CDC, about 20% to 50% of people who get rubella won’t have any symptoms.

So, why create a vaccine? The complications are aplenty:

  • Up to 70% of women who get the disease experience arthritis.
  • Brain infections
  • Bleeding problems
  • Liver or spleen damage
  • Heart problems
  • Intellectual disability
  • A pregnant woman can have a miscarriage, or the baby can die just after birth.
  • If a woman is infected early in her pregnancy, the baby can also experience severe birth defects.
A 1964 display is used to educate the public on rubella vaccination and the mother to fetus transmission of the virus, 1964. Image courtesy CDC.

While rubella is still common in other parts of the word, it was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2004. Additionally, the Pan American Health Organization announced in 2015 that the Americas -- North, South and Central -- is the world’s first region to eliminate the disease. That means it can no long spread year-round in the Americas region or the United States. That’s why the CDC says it is important for people to stay up to date on their vaccine.

The vaccine given now for rubella is a combination vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella.

It is recommended that children get two doses of the vaccine: One between the ages of 12 months and 15 months, the other between the ages of 4 and 6.

Click here to learn more.

7. Pertussis, or whooping cough

Pertussis, or what most of us know as the whooping cough, would have more than 200,000 cases annually before the availability of a vaccine in the 1940s, according to the CDC.

In fact, in the 20th century, it was one of the most common childhood diseases, as well as a major cause of childhood morality in the U.S. But it also can be serious for teens and adults.

Early symptoms include a runny nose, low-grade fever, mild cough and apnea. The early symptoms alone can appear to be the common cold, but one to two weeks in, as the disease progresses, people can also experience many violent coughing fits that are followed by a high-pitched “whoop” sound, vomiting and exhaustion.

Even months after pertussis presents itself, patients can still experience coughing fits and other respiratory infections.

And there are complications that can vary by age.

In babies and children, patients can experience:

  • Pneumonia
  • Convulsions
  • Apnea (slowed or stopped breathing)
  • Encephalopathy (disease of the brain)
  • Death

Teens and adults may experience complications such as:

  • Weight loss
  • Loss of bladder control
  • Passing out
  • Rib fractures from severe coughing

Since widespread vaccinations began, Incidents of the disease has decreased more than 80%.

However, it continues to be a major health problem in developing countries, where the World Health Organization reported 195,000 deaths resulting from the disease in 2008.

The CDC recommends that people of all ages get the vaccine, and there are different versions depending upon the person’s age. Click here to find out which ones are recommended at what age.

Click here to learn more about pertussis.

Regardless of how people may feel about vaccines, it’s clear that there is a correlation between the creation of a vaccine and the decrease in cases of a disease or virus.

About the Author:

Dawn Jorgenson, Graham Media Group Branded Content Managing Editor, began working with the group in April 2013. She graduated from Texas State University with a degree in electronic media.