June 14, 2024


Vaccines have emerged as a cornerstone of public health, preventing the spread of deadly diseases and saving countless lives.

The Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI), an initiative launched by the World Health Organization in 1974, stands as a global endeavor to ensure equitable access to life-saving vaccines for every child, regardless of their geographic location or socioeconomic status. Over the past five decades, the EPI has evolved and achieved remarkable milestones that reshaped the global health landscape.

The 50th anniversary of EPI in 2024 provides a pivotal occasion to celebrate the programme’s achievements, highlight its impact on lives saved, and catalyze renewed efforts to strengthen routine immunization initiatives. 

What is EPI? 

Building on the momentum of the smallpox eradication effort, EPI was initiated with the goal of providing universal access to life-saving vaccines for children worldwide. This programme, which is now commonly referred to as the Essential Programme on Immunization, seeks to safeguard individuals of all ages through comprehensive immunization efforts. Today, every country has a national immunization programme, and vaccines are universally recognized as among the safest, most cost-effective, and successful public health interventions to prevent fatalities and enhance the quality of life. 

A Brief History of EPI 

The history of EPI is a testament to the remarkable progress achieved in global health over the past five decades. Established by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1974, EPI aimed to combat and prevent various communicable diseases through systematic immunization programmes. At its inception, EPI featured just six vaccines in its portfolio, but today, this number has grown to thirteen, encompassing a spectrum of diseases including the recent addition of COVID-19 vaccines. 

The timeline of EPI is marked by several key milestones. Among these accomplishments, the eradication of smallpox in 1980 stands as a monumental triumph in the history of immunization. The global expansion of childhood vaccination programmes and the establishment of a robust vaccine supply chain were equally critical, allowing vaccines to reach even the most remote areas and endure extreme temperature conditions. 

Thanks to a unique public-private partnership between WHO, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), UNICEF, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, polio has been reduced by more than 99 percent.  The world stands on the threshold of eradicating a human pathogen globally for only the second time in history, after the eradication of smallpox.

In the 1980s, UNICEF and partners embarked on a bold mission – to immunize every child against preventable diseases. Together with governments, we facilitated one of the greatest logistical mobilizations in peacetime history. By the early 1990s, global childhood immunization levels reached 80 per cent.

The creation of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (Gavi) added another dimension to EPI’s success by supporting the introduction of a broader range of new vaccines. This period also witnessed the development and introduction of vaccines targeting diseases like Hib, Pneumococcal infections, rotavirus, HPV, meningitis A, Japanese encephalitis, and malaria. Notably, EPI innovations, such as injection safety practices and solar power integration in health facilities, extended their influence beyond immunization to benefit other health programmes. The role of EPI in building systems that facilitated the rapid global rollout of COVID-19 vaccines demonstrated its capacity to respond to emerging health crises. 

EPI’s Evolving Impact 

The EPI’s journey began with a focus on protection against six childhood vaccine-preventable diseases (Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG), diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, and measles). Over the course of four decades, its impact has grown. The vaccines available in the programme now encompass older children alone but extends it to encompass older children, adolescents, and adults. The incorporation of new vaccines has significantly amplified the scope of immunity offered by immunization, rendering defense against a wider spectrum of diseases. 

There are now 13 vaccines (antigens) recommended by WHO for the EPI programme. They are: Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG), diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib), Hepatitis B (HepB), polio, measles, rubella, pneumococcal disease (PNC), rotavirus (Rota), human papillomavirus (HPV), and COVID-19 (for adults). 

There are also vaccines recommended for particular settings, including Yellow fever, Meningitis, Japanese encephalitis  (JE), Cholera.

This comprehensive array of vaccines underscores the EPI’s commitment to safeguarding individuals from infancy through adulthood, embodying a holistic approach to health and well-being. 

Global Synergy for Better Health 

Central to its mission of ensuring universal access to relevant vaccines for those at risk, the EPI operates in tandem with other public health programmes to achieve disease control and enhance health outcomes. Through collaborative efforts, the EPI contributes to improving the health and resilience of populations across the globe. 

Immunization is one of the most efficient and cost-effective healthcare interventions, bringing the most marginalized communities into contact with Primary Health Care. 

EPI’s 50th anniversary is an opportunity to both honor its achievements and set new ambitions for the future. The programme’s success in preventing numerous diseases, improving child and maternal health, and advancing equity in healthcare access underscores the significance of immunization as a cornerstone of public health. As the world faces evolving challenges like climate change, pandemics, and technological advancements, EPI is poised to adapt its strategies and remain a pivotal force in shaping health outcomes for the next half-century. Through collaborative efforts among partners like WHO, UNICEF, Gavi, and others, EPI can further strengthen its impact, ensuring that essential immunization remains a global priority and continues to save lives across generations. 

History of Vaccines

Collage showing various items from the history of vaccines

History of the influenza vaccine

History of the Influenza vaccine

History of the polio vaccine

History of the Polio vaccine

History of the smallpox vaccine

History of the Smallpox vaccine

History of the measles vaccine

History of the Measles vaccine



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