Vaccines: A Peek Underneath the Hood
– W. Somerset Maugham
Medical history books, almost uniformly extol the virtues of vaccination. Upon reading these books, one is left with the impression that during the 1800s and into the 1900s, there were rampant plagues that killed countless scores of people and that, because of vaccines, this is no longer the case. This is certainly what we believed growing up, and most people we talk to have a similar impression. It generally permeates society as an established fact.
It is difficult to underestimate the contribution of immunization to our well-being. It has been estimated that, were it not for childhood vaccinations against diphtheria, pertussis, measles, mumps, smallpox, and rubella, as well as protection afforded by vaccines against tetanus, cholera, yellow fever, polio, influenza, hepatitis B, bacterial pneumonia, and rabies, childhood death rates would probably hover in the range of 20 to 50%. Indeed, in countries where vaccination is not practiced, the death rates among infants and young children remain at that level. 
Paul Offit talks in his recent book Deadly Choices—How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All about how the whooping cough vaccine has reduced deaths from that disease from 7,000 to only 30.
Whooping cough (pertussis) is a devastating infection. Before a vaccine was first used in the United States in the 1940s, about three hundred thousand cases of whooping cough caused seven thousand deaths every year, almost all in young children. Now, because of the pertussis vaccine, fewer than thirty children die every year from the disease. But times are changing. 
This type of information can even be found in medical journals. A lengthy study on whooping cough and the whooping cough vaccine was published in 1988 in the journal Pediatrics. The first paragraph of the paper states the following:
In the United States, pertussis has been successfully controlled by routine mass immunization of infants and children. In the prevaccine era, there were 115,000 to 270,000 cases of pertussis and 5,000 to 10,000 deaths due to the disease each year. During the last 10 years, there have been 1,200 to 4,000 cases and five to ten deaths per year. 
That paragraph set the tone for the rest of the article by indicating that thousands of people died each year from whooping cough, but after the DTP vaccine was introduced, very few died. Anyone who believed this statement would, of course, believe in the benefit of the vaccine.
The problem with these statements is that they are not supported by the evidence. When we look at the actual data, we see that although many people did die from whooping cough in the early part of the 1900s, by the time the vaccine had been introduced the death rate in the United States had declined by more than 90 percent. Using the source that was referenced to make the statement in the Pediatrics paper, we see that the decline in deaths from the peak was approximately 92 percent before the introduction of the DTP vaccine. 
The article in the journal Pediatrics is quite damaging because it would have been read primarily by doctors, leaving many with the impression that vaccines were completely responsible for the decline in deaths. The actual number of deaths by the time of the introduction of the DTP vaccine was approximately 1,200—not the 5,000 to 10,000 often cited. Again, this faulty thinking that vaccines were responsible for the lion’s share of mortality decline is pervasive in all corners of society.
An additional important point to notice is that when looking at the graph you can clearly see that each year the trend was that of a decrease in deaths from whooping cough. At the point the vaccine was introduced there was no apparent effect in the downward trend.
Another data set from England starting at the beginning of the 20th century shows the lack of impact of the vaccines even more dramatically. Here you can see that the death rate had fallen by over 98% before the national use of the DTP vaccine in the 1950s.