Global Alliance for Vaccines and ImmunizationA partnership for children?s health
Mother and child at the Boane clinic (Photo: Heidi Larson)

More about GAVI
The Vaccine Fund
Global vaccine news
Documentsand Resources
GAVI press releases
Quarterly Newsletter: Immunization Focus
Disease information
Information on health and economic growth

Disease information

Diseases preventable by traditional vaccines


Polio is a viral infection that can result in permanent paralysis.

More than half of all cases are in children under age three but anyone can be affected. Poliovirus is spread by person-to-person contact, and contact with infected faeces or with secretions from the nose or mouth. The virus establishes itself in the intestines, from where it can enter the blood and invade the nervous system. In severe cases, the brainstem can be infected, leading to respiratory failure and death. As the virus multiplies it destroys nerve cells that activate muscles, particularly in the legs, so that these muscles no longer function.

There is no cure for polio and immunization is the only effective way to prevent the disease.

Since 1955, when the first effective polio vaccines were introduced, the disease has been practically eliminated as a public health problem in the industrialized countries. In 1988 the World Health Assembly resolved to eradicate polio globally by the end of the year 2000.

In 12 years, thanks to the efforts of national governments working with WHO, Rotary International, UNICEF and other partners, the number of reported cases fell markedly from an estimated 350,000 to approximately 3,500 in 2000, according to WHO.

Today, polio is within sight of eradication worldwide. Large parts of the world are polio-free, including the WHO Regions of the Americas, Western Pacific, and Europe. However, the fragility of the progress is reflected by recent outbreaks that have occurred where immunization programmes have broken down because of war or other disruption. During 2000, reservoirs of poliovirus infection in South Asia and West/Central Africa are targeted for accelerated eradication activities.

For more information see:

[Back to top]


Diphtheria is a bacterial infection caused by the organism Corynebacterium diphtheriae. The spread of infection requires close contact between people.

When an infected person coughs or sneezes, droplets containing the bacteria may enter the nose or throat of another person. While some people experience few or no symptoms, others develop infection in the throat and respiratory tract which can result in obstructed breathing and death. Even with treatment, one in ten affected persons dies of the disease. The infection can also cause damage to the heart and nervous system. In tropical environments, the skin can be affected.

A safe and effective vaccine has long been available for diphtheria; it is usually given together with vaccines against tetanus and pertussis in the triple vaccine known as DTP.

Today about 3000 people, mostly children, die of diphtheria each year. There have been recent epidemics of the disease in Russia and other Eastern European countries, and some of those affected have been adults.

For more information see:

[Back to top]

Pertussis (whooping cough)

Pertussis is caused by infection with the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. It is spread by droplets and direct contact and is highly contagious.

Each year, about 296 000 people, mostly young infants, are killed by the disease worldwide, and at least 45 million suffer from the illness with prolonged and exhausting bouts of coughing that may continue for up to 3 months. Some children also suffer seizures and neurological damage.

In recent years there have been reported increases in the incidence of pertussis, including in several industrialized countries. Immunity to infection is not permanent, even after infection with B. pertussis. This partly explains the number of cases observed in adolescents and adults in some countries.

Vaccines based on whole killed B. pertussis bacteria (known as "whole-cell vaccines") have been used effectively and safely for several decades to prevent infection.

Frequent, but usually mild, adverse reactions associated with these vaccines, such as fever and localized side effects (redness, swelling and pain at the site of injection) and a fear of extremely rare but serious neurological events, reduced public acceptance of these vaccines in the 1970s in some countries, and led to the development of a new generation of vaccines that contain components of the bacterium instead of all of it. These products, known as "acellular" vaccines, provoke fewer of the frequent mild-to-moderate reactions seen with the whole-cell vaccines, while severe adverse effects are equally rare in both types of vaccine. The best acellular vaccines are as effective as the best whole-cell vaccines. Acellular vaccines are considerably more costly, however, and therefore whole-cell vaccines continue to be the most widely used. Both whole-cell and acellular vaccines can be given in combination with tetanus and diphtheria vaccines.

For more information see:

[Back to top]


Tetanus is caused by infection with a bacterium, Clostridium tetani, which is present in the soil, in animal dung and in faeces and enters the body through wounds.

The bacterium produces a toxin which can make skeletal muscles unusually rigid, and may result in spasms. Because these spasms may affect the facial muscles, tetanus is sometimes known as lockjaw. Ultimately, breathing may become difficult or impossible, resulting in death. Neonatal tetanus, which affects newborn babies, usually results from unsafe delivery in unhygienic conditions or without skilled birth attendants. Unsterile cutting and care of the umbilical cord is a frequent source of infection. As with many other infectious diseases, poverty greatly increases families’ vulnerability.

There are an estimated 200 000 deaths from neonatal tetanus each year. However the total number of tetanus deaths is much greater because mothers, older children and others can also be affected. WHO estimates that there are some 509 000 deaths altogether each year. Safe and effective vaccines against tetanus has been available for decades and are usually given with those for diphtheria and pertussis.

Since the World Summit for Children in 1993 the WHO has been working to eliminate neonatal tetanus as a public health problem. Strategies that governments can employ to achieve this goal include:

  • Ensuring that all pregnant women receive at least two doses of tetanus vaccine
  • Ensuring safe clean delivery for all women.

For more information see:

[Back to top]


Measles is a serious illness caused by a virus of the paramyxovirus family. It is a highly contagious infection, spread by droplets, with an incubation period of between 7 and 18 days.

Infected individuals may suffer fever, cough, rash, conjunctivitis, diarrhoea, ear infections and pneumonia. A less frequent but serious consequence of infection is encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain.

Measles kills an estimated 777,000 people, most of whom are children, worldwide each year and also causes permanent disabilities for some of its survivors, including blindness, deafness and brain damage. Complications of the disease are much more common in low-income countries, and in malnourished children, than in industrialized countries.

Although there is no specific treatment for measles, the number of cases of illness that prove fatal (between 3 per cent and 5 per cent in developing countries, and up to 30 per cent in some situations) can be reduced by effective case management, including oral rehydration therapy and the use of vitamin A supplements.

For further information see:


More vaccines that are available now





Contact GAVI | Guestbook | Text version | Credits and Copyright

HomeTop of PageDisease InformationReturn to GAVI Press