Years of Data Show Benefits of Vaccines ; Study Used Health Reports Dating to 19th Century to Calculate Illnesses Averted

By Lohr, Steve | International New York Times, November 29, 2013 | Go to article overview

Years of Data Show Benefits of Vaccines ; Study Used Health Reports Dating to 19th Century to Calculate Illnesses Averted


Lohr, Steve, International New York Times


Put simply, the estimates for prevented cases by a new study came from the falloff in disease reports after vaccines were licensed and widely available.

Vaccination programs for children have prevented more than 100 million cases of serious contagious disease in the United States since 1924, according to a new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The research, led by scientists at the University of Pittsburgh's graduate school of public health, analyzed public health reports going back to the 19th century. The reports covered 56 diseases, but the article in the journal focused on seven: polio, measles, rubella, mumps, hepatitis A, diphtheria and pertussis, or whooping cough.

Researchers analyzed disease reports before and after the times when vaccines became commercially available. Put simply, the estimates for prevented cases came from the falloff in disease reports after vaccines were licensed and widely available. The researchers projected the number of cases that would have occurred, had the pre-vaccination patterns continued as the nation's population increased.

The journal article is one example of the kind of analysis that can be done when enormous data sets are built and mined. The project, which started in 2009, required assembling 88 million reports of individual cases of disease, much of it from the weekly morbidity reports in the library of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Then the reports had to be converted to digital formats.

Most of the data entry -- 200 million keystrokes -- was done by Digital Divide Data, a social enterprise that provides jobs and technology training to young people in Cambodia, Kenya and Laos.

Still, data entry was just a start. The information was put into spreadsheets for making tables but was later sorted and standardized so it could be searched, manipulated and queried on the project's website.

"Collecting all this data is one thing, but making the data computable is where the big payoff should be," said Dr. Irene Eckstrand, a program director and science officer for the National Institutes of Health's Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study.

The University of Pittsburgh researchers also looked at death rates, but decided against including an estimate in the journal article, largely because death certificate data became more reliable and consistent only in the 1960s, the researchers said. …

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