Vaccines and Sanitation Played Huge Role in Increasing Life Expectancy in US

Generally, over the past century, improved sanitation combined with vaccinations against many diseases dramatically increased life expectancy. That trend was interrupted in the past three years, however, due to over one million deaths from COVID-19.

| 15 Sep 2023 | 01:30

How long will you live? With a bit of luck and some shots in the arm, likely many years more than your grandparents.

We measure the possibility with two simple words: life expectancy. That’s the average number of years people live after being born. For example, at the turn of the 20th century, American life expectancy was about 47 years. By 1950, it jumped to 60. Today, it’s around 79 for women, 73 for men, down about a year from 2020 due to the two-year pandemic in which 1.1 million deaths related to COVID-19 were recorded in the US, according to the CDC.

Two things accounted for the rise in life expectancy from the turn of the 20th century to the start of the pandemic in early 2020: Sanitation and vaccinations.

First up: Clean water. In 1854, nearly 300 years after Veronese physician Girolamo Fracastoro first proposed that disease was triggered by germs, London’s John Snow decided that contaminated water from the popular Broad Street pump was responsible for an outbreak of cholera killing his neighbors. He was right, the pump was shut, and communities across the globe began to clean up their water, first by straining it through sand filters and, by 1900, chlorinating it.

Next up: Vaccines. In 1872, after Britain’s Edward Jenner’s demonstrated that an infection with the relatively mild cowpox virus could protect against the far more virulent smallpox beastie, Louis Pasteur created the first lab-made vaccine, this one to protect chickens from cholera. Thirteen years later, he moved way up the biological ladder with the first human vaccine to protect against post-bite rabies.

After that, the vaccine train began running in earnest starting with the U.S. Army’s inconclusive flu fighters during the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic. By 1937, however, vaccines were real. A partial list, in order, includes yellow fever (1937 plus a 1951 Nobel for its creator, South Africa’s Max Theiler), whooping cough (1939), influenza (1945), polio (1955 Salk; 1960/Sabin), Hepatitis B (1981), the 1971 MMR trio measles (1963), mumps (1967), and rubella (1969), pneumococcal pneumonia (1978), HPV (human papillomavirus /2006), meningitis (2016), Ebola (2021), and a tailored version of smallpox vaccine for the new “monkey pox” (2023).

Given the millions of lives these meds have saved, you might think folks stood up and cheered as each was introduced. You’d be wrong. Right from the start, people were suspicious of something stuck into their bodies and the people doing the sticking. When Boston minister Cotton Mather endorsed the first smallpox inoculations in the early 1700s, his reward was a bomb tossed through his window. The Smithsonian website highlights a newspaper cartoon from the early 1800s titled “The Cow Pock” showed vaccinees with cows leaping out of their mouths.

Sound familiar? Ever since December 2020, when the very first COVID 19 vaccines were available, the no-vaccine chorus has sung loudly, but they were singing way out of tune. In March 2022, as COVID deaths mounted and were counted, Scientific American published two charts comparing fatalities among those who were vaccinated and those who were not. The numbers were clear. And devastating. Among those fully vaccinated and boosted, there were an average 118 deaths per week per 100,000, primarily among the elderly and those with preexisting conditions. Among the un-vaccinated, the number was 383 per 100,000–more than twice as high.

Despite the misinformation and conspiracy theories, the CDC said that as of late April, there were 675 million vaccine doses administered in the US and an estimated 69 percent of the US population has been vaccinated. This week, the latest COVID vaccine designed to counter the latest viral mutation is rolling out around the country.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a 13-1 vote recommended that the vaccination be administered to everyone six months of age or older. The thinking is a near universal vaccine will provide the best protection against another fall/winter surge.

Among those fully vaccinated and boosted, there were an average 118 deaths per week per 100,000 primarily among the elderly and those with preexisting conditions. Among the un-vaccinated, the number was 383, per 100,000 more than twice as high.