The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of the power of a single virus to change how we live, work, and interact—disrupting global economies, infecting millions, and killing hundreds of thousands in a matter of months.
It wasn’t so long ago that smallpox was one of the most feared and devastating infectious diseases known to mankind. In the 20th century alone, smallpox killed some 300 million people—nearly the equivalent of the current United States population. And, between the late 1940s and early 1950s, about 35,000 people in the U.S.—many of them children—were disabled by polio, a crippling and potentially deadly, contagious disease.
Why is it that so many of us can’t remember the severity of infectious diseases like smallpox and polio? One major reason is that routine vaccinations—the very thing health care providers worry that many families are missing or delaying right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic—have worked so well.
A vaccine for smallpox was developed by Edward Jenner in the late 1700s, followed by a vaccine that was manufactured on a large scale starting in 1898. Thanks to the effectiveness of a global immunization program, the World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicated in 1980.
Vaccines are one of the greatest public health success stories in history. According to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the immunization of U.S. children born between 1994 and 2018 will prevent 419 million illnesses and save 936,000 lives. CDC data also reinforce the importance of adult vaccinations, estimating that 45,000 adults die from vaccine-preventable diseases in the U.S. each year. Bottom line: vaccinations can help protect us and our loved ones by helping to keep illnesses at bay.
The push to keep vaccinations on track
While scientists and public health officials are working to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re also sounding the alarm about the importance of ensuring all individuals stay up-to-date on recommended and catch-up vaccinations for infectious diseases.
Unfortunately, in the first four months of 2020, the CDC reported fewer childhood vaccines administered in the U.S. compared to the same period in 2019. Worldwide, COVID-19 has disrupted childhood immunization services in at least 68 countries. According to a recent report co-authored by the WHO, UNICEF, Gavi, and the Sabin Vaccine Institute, at least 80 million children under age 1 are now at risk for vaccine-preventable diseases.
Declines in vaccinations can put individuals of all ages at risk for vaccine-preventable diseases. Children, older adults, and immunocompromised individuals will be particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases, such as influenza, as childcare centers, schools, and colleges across the country reopen and society returns to some degree of normalcy.
That’s why the CDC says that, in addition to taking steps to stop the spread of COVID-19, keeping routine vaccination schedules on track right now is one of the best ways to help protect the health of your family and your community.
A timely case in point is the upcoming influenza, or flu season. During the 2020–2021 season, the CDC says it’s likely that flu viruses and the COVID-19 virus will spread at the same time. While getting the annual flu vaccine won’t protect against COVID-19, the CDC says it is the best way to help prevent flu symptoms and complications and avoid flu-related medical visits or hospital stays during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite common misconceptions that “it’s only the flu,” seasonal influenza can be deadly. Although symptoms can range from mild to severe, flu viruses cause tens of thousands of deaths in the U.S. each year, another reason to get vaccinated.
If you or your children have missed vaccinations since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, health care providers can use catch-up immunization schedules published by the CDC to help you get back on track. Many providers are also changing normal procedures to maintain social distancing wherever possible. Creative solutions—like drive-through vaccination clinics (where families stay in their cars), vaccination-only waiting rooms, and special vaccination-only hours—encourage parents to resume routine vaccination schedules. Check with your health care provider to see what options might be available for you and your family.
Vaccination remains essential
All of the vaccinations we consider routine today were the result of robust research and testing. The road from vaccine invention to approval can be complex, time intensive, and carries no guarantees. Achieving success requires an ability to produce hundreds of millions of doses of high-quality vaccines—and ensure consistent quality in every single dose.
Vaccine makers, like Merck, understand the process needs to be rooted in sound science and safety. Merck has been at the forefront of vaccine discovery and development for more than a century. From the late 1950s to early 1980s, Merck medical scientist Dr. Maurice Hilleman, considered “the father of modern vaccines,” led the development of more than 40 vaccines to help protect human and animal health.
Hilleman’s legacy continues to inspire the current generation of Merck innovators, who have helped create the vaccines used around the globe today, to help prevent a wide variety of diseases in people of all ages. Now, as part of its ongoing mission to help protect public health, Merck is part of the global effort to help respond to the current COVID-19 pandemic.
While you continue to adapt to new routines, remember there’s no need to sit on the sidelines. There are steps you can take right now to help protect your family’s health. Start by scheduling a health care appointment as soon as possible if you, your child, or another family member has missed or delayed any vaccinations due to the pandemic. Then, make sure all appropriate family members get the flu vaccine this fall, as well as any other recommended vaccines.
Staying up-to-date on routine vaccinations can help to ensure that infectious, and potentially deadly, vaccine-preventable diseases don’t make a comeback.
Learn more about vaccines and Merck’s commitment to disease prevention through scientific innovation.