Diseases that used to be deadly before vaccines

Many argue that they never got a certain vaccine and never had the disease associated with it, and therefore vaccines are not always needed. However, the reason they never got the disease is likely because most people around them had been vaccinated, so they never got infected by others. This is called herd immunity.

There are some children who suffer from autoimmune conditions that prevent them from being vaccinated. It is important for those who can, to be vaccinated, so that herd immunity will protect those who cannot be vaccinated.

Most of us did get some or other childhood disease, but our symptoms were likely manageable and we recovered. It was not always the case; many of these illnesses that we treat with two weeks of bedrest and some medication, used to be fatal to many children. Here are some illnesses that used to have high mortality rates.


The polio virus used to be crippling, with permanent side effects. It causes paralysis, often in the arms or legs, via the brain and spinal cord. With the distribution of the polio vaccine, the illness is eradicated in many countries, only showing up in countries where the vaccine is not widely available. The polio vaccine is shown to be more than 99% effective, if three doses are taken. This vaccine is usually included in standard baby vaccination programmes.

Tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough

Tetanus causes muscle stiffness and lockjaw. It is often related to injuries where one has made contact with a rusty metal object. The tetanus vaccine is actually a three-in-one (DTaP), as it protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, also known as whooping cough. Diphtheria causes a thick covering in the back of the nose or throat that makes it hard to breathe or swallow. Diphtheria can also lead to heart failure, paralysis and in some cases be fatal.

Whooping cough causes violent coughing in babies that limits their breathing. Mothers can get the DTaP vaccine during pregnancy to protect their babies after birth.


For many adults, the flu is not that bad. We can survive it with rest and lots of warm liquids. For a child, it is very dangerous. Thousands of children in first world countries are hospitalised every year, with high grade fevers and dehydration. It is even more difficult when a child is too young to understand why they need to drink more liquids or why they need to take medication. However, taking an annual flu vaccine can help to minimise symptoms and speed up recovery time, as you build resistance. It is safe for pregnant mothers to have the vaccine, and is recommended as this will afford her baby some immunity once they are born as well. A baby as old as six months can receive this vaccine as well.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is often spread through blood or bodily fluids. This is dangerous as babies can be infected by their mothers during birth. It causes jaundice, malaise, nausea and pain. To avoid this, babies receive a full three course vaccination before the age of six months.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A was rampant, not too long ago. The vaccine was only developed in 1995, so some of us may have had it as children. It has the same symptoms as Hepatitis B, with jaundice as a main symptom. Hepatitis A is however spread through close contact, and can be spread via food and water that contains faecal matter. Babies may receive two doses, six months apart, after the age of 12 months.

Rubella (German measles) and measles and mumps

Rubella is spread by mucus and saliva, and is extremely dangerous to pregnant women and their developing babies. The disease can cause severe birth defects. If a mother is unvaccinated and gets infected, she may have a miscarriage or her baby may not survive long after birth.

The measles can be extremely contagious. It can be transmitted by just being in the room where a person with measles had been, for up to two hours after. The measles used to be deadly, to adults and children, before modern medicine.

Mumps causes severe swelling of the salivary glands, with high grade fevers and fatigue. It is also highly contagious.

The vaccine for this is called the MMR and is administered after 12 months and again after four years of age.

If you plan on traveling internationally, it may be advised to have your baby receive the first dose if they are older than six months.

Chicken pox

Chicken pox used to be deadly, as it causes blisters all over the body with a high fever. The vaccine reduces the severity of the illness significantly.


The rotavirus is contagious and causes severe diarrhoea, dehydration and abdominal pain in infants and young children. Before modern medicine of IV-fluids, many children simply perished. The best protection is still offered through vaccination. 

If you want to know more about vaccination, traveling vaccines and booster shots for yourself or your children, visit our wellness clinics or Homegrown Babies clinics. We offer a variety of vaccines. We can also assist with your registration for the COVID-19 vaccine. We are currently licenced to administer the COVID-19 vaccine at our Steiltes store, for patients that have medical aid coverage.

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