There is an interesting article on National Geographic where the author goes to great lengths to describe the world before vaccines in terms of numbers:
“Having grown up in the shadow of polio (my uncle was on crutches for life), and having made first-hand acquaintance with measles (I was part of the pre-vaccine peak year of 1958, along with 763,093 other young Americans), I’ve happily rolled up my sleeve for any vaccine recommended by my doctor and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with extra input for foreign travel from the CDC Yellow Book. I am deeply grateful to vaccines for keeping me alive and well, and also for helping me return from field trips as healthy as when I set out.
One result of this willingness, however, is that I suffer, like most people, from a notorious Catch-22: Vaccines save us from diseases, then cause us to forget the diseases from which they save us. Once the threat appears to be gone from our lives, we become lax. Or worse, we make up other things to worry about. Thus, some well-meaning parents avoid vaccinating their children out of misplaced fear that the MMR vaccine (for measles, mumps, and rubella) causes autism. Never mind that independent scientific studies have repeatedly demonstrated that no such link exists, most recently in a study of 657,000 children in Denmark.
And so, parents forget, or more likely never knew, that 33 of every 100,000 people who experienced actual measles ended up with mental retardation or central nervous system damage. (That’s in addition to those who died.)
They forget that an outbreak of rubella in the early 1960s resulted in 20,000 children being born with brain damage, including autism, and other congenital abnormalities.
They forget that, before it was eradicated by a vaccine in the 1970s, smallpox left many survivors blind, maimed, or brain damaged.”
It is difficult to think of a world before vaccines because we really don’t see these dire consequences of vaccine-preventable diseases even in the individuals and groups who do not vaccinate here in the United States. There’s maybe one or two cases of congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) a year, and they are very likely to have been imported cases. Children who get measles in places like New York or Washington State this year are less likely than their 1960s counterparts to suffer severe consequences.
Actually, this is one of the arguments of anti-vaccine groups in the misinformation they provide. They’ll state that chickenpox or measles is just “spots with a fever,” and they’ll claim that the child who suffers through such a disease will receive “lifelong immunity.” (The claim of lifelong immunity is based on the fact that people who suffered through a childhood disease rarely suffered through it again as adults. This is more likely due to them being boosted through exposure from when the disease was more common and not because memory cells actually lasted a lifetime. The jury is still out on this.)
The world before vaccines also lacked much of the medical technology we take for granted in the United States today. We have antibiotics against the secondary bacterial infections brought on by viral infections and the bacterial infections that can be prevented through vaccination. If a person contracts meningitis that creates toxins that kill the cells and tissues at their extremities, there are surgical procedures to take the limbs and save their lives. Essentially, they survive and are not counted as deaths, making the disease seem less deadly than it used to be, though still grave and life-altering.
Germ Theory, the understanding that germs cause disease is a relatively new concept for humanity. It has been around since the mid-1800s when the work of Pasteur and Koch established that specific microbes caused specific disease. From there, public health and medicine worked on fighting those microbes with methods such as hand washing, disinfectants and quarantines. Just covering your coughs and sneezes may play a role in containing the yearly flu epidemic.
However, when it comes to disease control and prevention, very few interventions match vaccines in terms of cost and effectiveness. You need to remember to wash your hands and have available soap and clean water to contain diseases like hepatitis A or cholera. You need to wear respirators and keep people isolated to deal with influenza or whooping cough. Instead of these active measures, you could just get the recommended vaccinations.
The world before vaccines was not just about high numbers of children and adults coming down with serious infectious diseases. It was also a world devoid of technology to help people if they did contract those diseases. This technology and vaccines arrived in history hand-in-hand. Pasteur not only came up with the rabies vaccine, after all. His work laid down the science for combating germs. The world without vaccines is also a world without food packaging, refrigeration, soap, clean water and antibiotics.