The development of vaccines is one of the single largest advancements in medicine that has saved the most lives. And a 1962 breakthrough in vaccine development is now estimated to have prevented over 4.5 billion cases of disease, saving 10 million lives.
In a similar way to how the HeLa cell line (a cell culture developed from a single cell, thus consisting of cells with a uniform genetic makeup), which were originally taken from Henrietta Lacks, revolutionized the study of cancer, the WI-38 line became invaluable to early researchers studying virology and immunology. Isolated by two researchers, Leonard Hayflick and Paul Moorhead, in 1962, the WI-38 cell line has since been used to develop and produce vaccines for many well-known conditions ranging from measles to rabies.
“Given the acknowledged large, positive global health impact of vaccines in general, I was curious what contribution my discovery of WI-38 in 1962 had in saving lives and reducing morbidity, since a large number of viral vaccines in use today are made with my cell strain or its derivatives,” explained Hayflick. So he asked a colleague to see if it would be possible to quantify the impact that WI-38 has had on global health, and the results a staggering.
Between the years 1963 (when some vaccines were starting to be produced using WI-38) and 2015, in the United States alone close to 200 million cases of polio, measles, mumps, rubella, adenovirus, rabies, and hepatitis A were prevented, saving an estimated 450,000 lives. Yet the impact really comes into its own when the global picture is taken into account. Over that same period of years, the study authors think that vaccines developed from the WI-38 cell line may have prevented at least 4.5 billion cases of disease, saving over 10 million people.
The study, published in the journal AIMS Public Health, used previously published data on the rates of the specific diseases from 1960, before the widespread use of the vaccines was available, assuming that the rate of disease would have remained fairly constant if no action had been taken. This was then compared to the rates in following years after each of the vaccines were rolled out.
Despite this incredible achievement, and the countless lives saved by the work carried out by Hayflick and Moorhead over 50 years ago, there is still much to be done. With an estimated 1.4 million children under the age of five who still die every year from diseases preventable by vaccines, the need to maintain and increase access to vaccines is still a vital necessity, despite what some people may erroneously think about them.
“There is no medication, lifestyle change, public health innovation, or medical procedure ever developed that has even come close to the life-saving, life-extending, and primary prevention benefits associated with vaccines,” says Hayflick.