Top 10 vaccines

From Polio to COVID-19, explore our list of the Top 10 vaccines that have helped eradicate diseases while changing the face of medicine over centuries

Polio, once a devastating disease, is prevented by the polio vaccine, protecting millions from paralysis. Chickenpox vaccine shields against itchy blisters and potential complications. Smallpox, eradicated globally, owed its victory to the smallpox vaccine. Influenza vaccines combat ever-changing flu strains, reducing severity and transmission. Tetanus shots prevent lockjaw, a severe bacterial infection, while Hepatitis A and B vaccines safeguard against liver infections caused by these viruses. Yellow fever vaccine shields against a mosquito-borne viral disease prevalent in certain regions and the MMR vaccine offers immunity against measles, mumps, and rubella. Lastly, the COVID-19 vaccines are pivotal in the fight against the ongoing pandemic, saving lives and curbing the virus's spread.

10: COVID-19

Invented through a collaborative effort by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson in 2020.

The development of COVID-19 vaccines was an unprecedented event, marking an accelerated global effort to stimulate the immune system to recognise and fight the virus, providing protection against COVID-19.

Sadly, despite being the fastest vaccine ever produced, this has come at a cost. Some have refused the vaccine fearing its speedy discovery could mean that there are unknown side effects. However, regulatory authorities reviewed the data and granted emergency use authorisations, allowing vaccine manufacturing and distribution to take place on an unmatched scale. 

9: MMR

Invented by Maurice Hilleman

Licensed by Merck

CEO: Robert M Davis

The MMR vaccine was invented in 1971 by Maurice Hilleman, who continued developing vaccines up until his death in 2005. A safe, effective combined vaccine, MMR protects against Measles, Mumps and Rubella, all highly-infectious conditions that can spread quickly. Measles can lead to severe health complications, Mumps can cause swelling of the salivary glands and Rubella can lead to birth defects if pregnant women are infected. For the most effective protection, it requires two doses.

8: Yellow Fever

Invented by Max Theiler

Rockefeller Foundation

CEO: Dr. Rajiv J. Shah

In tropical countries, Yellow Fever is transmitted to humans by insects, causing a fever, chills, headache and muscle aches. South African-American virologist Max Theiler, of the Rockefeller Foundation, managed to transmit the virus to mice and studied it there. A weakened form of the virus was tested on apes, which made them immune. In 1938, the vaccine was successfully launched. In 1951, Theiler received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery.

7: Hep B

Baruch Blumberg


CEO: Robert M Davis

Dr. Baruch Blumberg discovered the Hepatitis B virus in 1965, winning the Nobel Prize for his discovery. He worked with microbiologist Irving Millman to develop a blood test for the Hep B virus and then created the vaccine in 1969. 

The Hep B vaccine is also the first anti-cancer vaccine, because it prevents liver cancer. Chronic Hep B and C causes 80% of all liver cancer cases worldwide, which is the second most common cause of cancer death.

6: Hep A

Maurice Hilleman


CEO: Robert M Davis

Merck is a global pharmaceutical company known for its contributions in developing vaccines. Maurice Hilleman is known for fighting diseases and is referred to as ‘history's most successful vaccinologist’.

Hep A impacts the liver and spreads through contaminated food and water, as well as by close contact with an infected person. Hilleman invented the Hep A vaccine in 1995, which helps individuals develop immunity to the virus and prevents its transmission, reducing the risk of severe illness.

5: Diphtheria and Tetanus

Emil von Behring 

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

In the late 19th century, German bacteriologist Dr. Emil von Behring and his colleague Dr. Kitasato Shibasaburo identified the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae as the causative agent of diphtheria, a highly-contagious and potentially deadly disease.

Von Behring further discovered that animals infected with the diphtheria bacteria produced an immune response that developed antibodies neutralising the toxin. He extracted the serum containing these antibodies from the blood of immunised animals, creating the first diphtheria antitoxin.

4: Influenza

Thomas Francis and Jonas Salk 

The University of Michigan

CEO: Santa J. Ono

The 1918 influenza epidemic killed an estimated 50m people at the end of the First World War, spreading quickly due to the squalid conditions bred by the conflict. When the US joined WW2, American physician Thomas Francis was tasked with creating a vaccine. Tested on the US military, the vaccine was licensed for wider use in 1945.

Now, the influenza vaccine plays a vital role in controlling seasonal flu outbreaks, protecting the vaccinated while also lowering the transmission potential to vulnerable populations.

3: Smallpox

Edward Jenner

Smallpox was a highly-contagious, deadly disease that caused the deaths of millions and featured in many of Charles Dickens’ books. Its impact on Indigenous populations during European colonisation was especially tragic, with mortality rates reaching 90% in some communities lacking immunity.

The first smallpox vaccine was produced by English physician Edward Jenner in 1796, when he noticed that milkmaids who’d had cowpox were protected from smallpox. Subsequent successful vaccination campaigns led to the eradication of smallpox in 1980.

2: Chickenpox

Michiaki Takahashi


CEO: Robert M Davis

Michiaki Takahashi played a pivotal role in the development of the chickenpox vaccine. In the 1970s, he embarked on a mission to isolate the varicella-zoster virus responsible for chickenpox. Takahashi obtained a sample of the virus from an infected child and developed it into a vaccine. The vaccine derived from the Takahashi strain is known as the ‘Varicella vaccine’ or the ‘Chickenpox vaccine’. It is used to prevent chickenpox in individuals who have not been previously infected with the virus or have not received the vaccine. The vaccine has since been instrumental in reducing the severity of chickenpox worldwide, preventing complications and hospitalisations associated with the disease. 

“I believe that the vaccine will stop severe chickenpox symptoms in children and make it less likely that old people will get shingles. I am very proud of my and my colleagues’ work,” Takahashi told the Financial Times.

1: Polio

Jonas Salk

University of Pittsburgh

Chancellor: Patrick Gallagher

Throughout the early 1950s, Jonas Salk had been cultivating polio strains and testing his vaccine on monkeys. From his kitchen, Salk injected himself, his wife and their three sons with his polio vaccine. 

On 12th April 1955, the day Salk’s vaccine was declared safe and effective, CBS news asked Salk who owned the patent. “Well, the people, I would say,” he replied.

Forbes magazine has speculated that Salk could have made USD$7bn had he patented the vaccine.

Polio has been eradicated everywhere, except in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where there is resistance to the vaccine due to misinformation. Over the past ten years, almost 100 immunisation workers have been murdered in Pakistan (as well as people supporting them, such as police officers).

It is hoped that a combination of community engagement, awareness campaigns, support for healthcare workers, and improved security measures will ensure the successful distribution of the polio vaccine.


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