Vaccines are considered to be among the greatest human inventions of all time. They are directly responsible for the increased life expectancy we enjoy by preventing childhood death from diseases such as measles, pertussis, and diphtheria. The CDC estimates that, among children born in the last 20 years, vaccinations will prevent more than 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths.
But beyond saving lives, this reduction in disease means a reduction in the cost of treating these illnesses. Which translates into vaccines being not only lifesaving, but money-saving as well.
How exactly do vaccines save money? When a child gets sick with a vaccine-preventable illness (as with any very serious illness), she will need to seek treatment and this of course is going to cost something. Now if the child gets a serious complication, she may need to be hospitalized. So there are hospital bills, medications, and doctor visits before, during, and after the illness. Tragically, if there are long-term complications, such as deafness from mumps or brain damage from measles, there will be costs associated with this as well (adaptive devices, special education requirements, etc).
One study in the journal Pediatrics examined the total costs associated with a variety of vaccine-preventable diseases—and thus the savings incurred by vaccinating—and the results were impressive. For example, the cost per hospitalization for an infection with haemophilus influenza type B (Hib), a very serious bacterial illness,with resulting meningitis can cost over $43,000. An estimated 19,000 cases of Hib infection will be prevented over the lifetimes of children born in 2009 because of routine immunization, saving an estimated $1.8 billion in disease-treating costs. When you add in all the other diseases that we routinely vaccinate against in the United States, the estimated savings are staggering.
In economic terms, those are considered "direct costs"—that is, the money that goes directly to the care of an ill child. But it's important to remember that when a child gets sick and hospitalized, there are costs beyond simply treating the illness. Her parents may have to take time off of work, incurring lost income. There may be insurance copayments to meet. If the child has long-term consequences from the illness, there may also be lost opportunities for income. And should this child have inadvertently exposed others, there might be a cascading public health crisis, with daycares shut and public health agencies mandating quarantines.
The public can incur significant expenses from nonvaccination as well, often referred to as "societal" or "indirect" costs. For example, it can cost public health departments close to $10,000 per day to contain an outbreak such as the recent measles outbreak—including identifying all possible infections, making contact with people who may have been exposed and following them for the entire incubation period, issuing orders to exclude unvaccinated children from school, working with other local health departments and hospitals on containment and treatment protocols, and providing additional vaccinations. The average outbreak control period is 18 days; that’s $180,000 to control a disease that could have been prevented through vaccination.
These costs, both direct and indirect, are so impressive that it’s considered financially irresponsible to limit access to routine immunizations based on family income or insurance status. In 1994, the U.S. government began a program called Vaccines for Children, which provides vaccines to children who would otherwise not be able to afford them. This program is estimated not only to have saved countless children from illness and death, but also to have saved nearly $259 billion in direct costs and $1.38 trillion in total societal costs.Think about that: $1.38 trillion saved by vaccines. Honestly, that number makes the 238,857 miles between here and the moon sound like a short stroll, doesn’t it?
The money-saving effect of vaccines is not limited to the United States. Worldwide, the three vaccine-preventable diseases that lead to the greatest mortality in children age 5 and under are pneumococcal disease, rotavirus, and Hib infection. Those children who survive these diseases may suffer long-term complications such as blindness, deafness, or mental retardation. It is estimated that if, over the next decade, we were to begin widespread vaccination against just three diseases (Hib, pneumococcal, and rotavirus) in the world's 73 poorest countries, it would save an estimated $63 billion in treatment and lost productivity costs.
So there you have it. We know vaccines save lives. But it turns out they also save money, directly and indirectly. Yet one more reason to make sure you and your loved ones are fully vaccinated.