Vaccines are widely recognized as one of the most important advances in medical history. Once-devastating diseases like polio, which at its peak claimed the lives of nearly 6,000 Americans each year, have been nearly eradicated. Smallpox has been eradicated, and many other vaccine-preventable diseases have seen dramatic declines in incidence. But what is the total societal value of the tremendous public health advances vaccines have made possible?
To help answer that question, the American Journal of Managed Care (AJMC) recently published a groundbreaking study exploring “The Social Value of Childhood Vaccination in the United States.” The study aimed to measure the total social value of childhood vaccines, and furthermore how that value is divided between the innovators developing vaccines and the patients (and broader society) who benefit from them. The authors focused their research on U.S.-born children in 2009, examined 14 vaccines, and set out to determine the lifetime social value vaccines generated in this cohort “by applying an economic value to the health effects of vaccines, measured in terms of quality-adjusted life-years (QALYs) saved through vaccination.” QALYs take into account duration and quality of life, where a year in perfect health is measured as 1 QALY and death is measured as 0.
The report found that by preventing illness and premature deaths, vaccination of children born in the United States in 2009 saves 1.2 million QALYs and will generate $184 billion in lifetime social value, or $45,000 per child. Of this, about two percent ($3.4 billion) accrues to vaccine manufacturers in the form of profits, while the remaining 98% ($180.7 billion) is retained by society. Because saving a child’s life yields many healthy life-years, the large majority (88%) of the health benefits of vaccines is due to avoided premature deaths rather than reduced morbidity (12%).
The fact that 98% of the social value of existing childhood vaccines accrues to children and their families means that vaccines are one of the most tremendous societal bargains in healthcare – or any sector. It is also a positive indicator for access to current vaccines, but it may portend poorly for long-term innovation of future vaccines, as the authors note in their conclusion:
While a small manufacturers’ share may facilitate access to vaccines in the short term, it also has implications for the incentive to develop new and improved vaccines to provide further health gains in the future.
Given that new and existing vaccines have drastically reduced healthcare costs, it is vital that the broad policy community continue to find ways to foster innovation in vaccines. We have many unmet medical needs in infectious diseases still to conquer.
Be sure to check out the full study here.