In 1900 we Americans were expected to live about 60 years, if we survived the first five. Today, the average life expectancy ranges from mid-70s to low-80s. There is one primary reason for our increased life expectancy: immunizations. August, the back-to-school month, is also immunization awareness month.

Immunizations, what do you know? T or F?

1. There is a vaccine against Ebola.

2. Kids get vaccines against five diseases.

3. The first vaccine was available in 1921.

In 1900, 30.4 percent of all deaths occurred in those younger than 5 years. Today the figure is about 1 percent. Strategic vaccination campaigns have virtually eliminated diseases that previously were common in the United States, including diphtheria, tetanus, poliomyelitis, smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, and Haemophilus influenzae type b meningitis, according to the CDC.

The diseases are not new. Egyptian mummies show evidence of polio. Hippocrates described mumps and diphtheria in 400 BC. In the 1100s, variolation, transferring scab material from smallpox patients to uninfected individuals, was becoming utilized in Turkey, China and present day Eastern Europe. Six hundred years later, in 1721, British physician Edward Jenner MD used variolation techniques to develop the smallpox vaccine. The last case of smallpox in the United States was in 1949. Thanks, Ed.

About 100 years later French physician Louis Pasteur developed the first live attenuated bacterial vaccine (water-borne cholera) and in 1885 the first live attenuated virus vaccine (rabies). In 1893 diphtheria vaccine was mass-produced and administered, for which Emil von Behring won the Nobel Prize.

The first county health departments were founded in 1908 and they remain a hub for public access to vaccines. From 1914 to 1923 vaccines against tetanus, rabies, typhoid, pertussis and diphtheria became available. A combination diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus vaccine was approved for use in children in 1947.

Our service men and women who survived WWII returned to bear witness to the single worst polio outbreak in the history. In 1952, 57,628 new cases were reported. Stock in companies manufacturing iron lungs, first used in 1928, likely soared. The race was on for prevention and cure.

In 1954 scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery of poliovirus, paving the way for vaccines developed by competing scientists Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. In 1955, the Salk vaccine, made of killed poliovirus, was licensed. The Polio Vaccination Assistance Act, the first federal involvement in vaccine activities, enabled states and communities to gain access to the polio vaccine. My grandmother vividly remembered when public health officials brought the polio vaccine to her area and how people lined up to receive it. Theirs was not a hypothetical bogey-man-in-the-closet fear of polio. Everyone knew someone who had contracted polio. I myself have known two people with post-polio syndrome, both born in the 1940s.

In 1962 John Kennedy signed the Vaccination Assistance Act that supported the CDC in developing and sustaining mass immunization programs. Today children receive vaccines against 12 diseases before age 5, allowing survival to kindergarten. Booster injections provide continuing immunity. These public health initiatives have saved more lives than any other single scientific or medical advancement.

Last week two of our scientists returned from Africa stricken with Ebola. It was too late for a vaccine that the NIH has been successfully testing in primates and which will likely be available for humans this fall. If effective in humans the vaccine will likely become mandatory for children in Africa.

August means back-to-school inventory for clothes, pencils, papers, notebooks. And immunizations.

Answers: 1. F; 2. F; 3. F.

Dr. Lori Boyajian-O’Neill can be contacted at