Patterns of morbidity and mortality around the globe are determined by interactions between infectious diseases and systematic human socioeconomic processes. The most obvious of these patterns is that the greatest burdens of infectious diseases are found among the poor, who lack the basic resources for disease prevention and treatment. Yet, it is becoming increasingly clear that many infectious diseases are themselves causes of poverty owing to their effects on labour productivity. A particularly subtle phenomenon that receives little attention in the epidemiology literature and is especially important for poor communities is the role of the birth rate as an important direct cause of high disease burdens. Because of their high rates of transmission and life-long immunity, the persistence of many child diseases such as measles relies on high rates of reproduction as their source of susceptible individuals. Thus, there are significant direct health benefits of lower fertility rates, which are further enhanced by interactions with economic processes. Indeed, fertility, poverty and disease all interact with each other in important and predictable ways that can be built into traditional disease ecology models. We present such a model here that provides insights into the long-term effect of policy interventions. For example, because of indirect income effects, herd immunity may be acquired with lower vaccine coverage than previously thought. Reductions in the disease burden can also occur through lower fertility. Our model thus provides a disease ecology framework that is useful for the analysis of demographic transitions.