August marks National Immunization Awareness Month – a time to take inventory on where we stand, and recognize how far we’ve come, in advancing breakthrough vaccines designed to protect the world’s population. However, despite the clear societal and economic benefits that come with common vaccinations like a flu shot, distorted facts and misinformation about immunization often stand between these extraordinary products and the populations that urgently need them. Regardless of a greater portion of society agreeing that the benefits outweigh the risks, year-round efforts to ensure individuals across the globe are educated with the facts on vaccine safety and effectiveness are more important than ever.
And the facts are now beyond doubt. One estimate found that between 2011 and 2020, vaccines will have averted over 23 million deaths in low-income countries. What’s more, according to the CDC, vaccines are responsible for saving the lives of more than 730,000 American children between 1994-2013. During this same period, more than 320 million childhood illnesses were prevented in the U.S. alone.
But it’s not just children who benefit from vaccines. Men and women of all ages should make sure they are up to date – especially as individuals age and their immune systems weaken. In the U.S., the Alliance for Aging Research found that between 50,000 and 90,000 adults die annually from vaccine-preventable diseases or their complications. Each one of those deaths is a terrible tragedy that could easily be avoided with more widespread vaccination.
Beyond the impact on our lives and health, vaccines also have a tremendous positive economic impact. American businesses lose billions of dollars in lost productivity each year because of employees falling ill from sicknesses that vaccines could have helped prevent. In fact, one estimate predicted that 11 million workers would become sick with the flu during the 2018 winter season, costing their employers over $9 billion in sick leave. Another study found that the vaccination of children born in the United States in 2009 is projected to generate $184 billion in lifetime social value – that’s about $45,000 per child.
The data speaks for itself: from both an economic and public health standpoint, vaccines have the ability to shape and change the world. Take polio for example. An outbreak in 1952 took the lives of 3,000 Americans, paralyzing another 21,000 in that same year. Families were broken, communities were devastated, and our country lived in fear. What seemed like an unbeatable challenge, however, was no match for science. Years of R&D and sleepless nights led many brilliant scientists to a vaccine for the virus by 1955. In 1979, polio, once our nation’s most feared disease, was officially eliminated in the United States.
Shingles is another condition that we now have the tools to conquer. This painful rash, often described as debilitating and intense, can last for weeks, and feel like an eternity for many patients. But the past few years have brought welcome news. The CDC now recommends two vaccines for adults age 50 years or older, and these modern marvels are highly effective at reducing the severity of shingles pain which is an incredible step forward in the fight against this debilitating illness.
It’s also encouraging to see researchers and scientists’ race against time to prevent emerging viral diseases like Zika, Ebola, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) from spreading and thus causing an unpredictable outbreak. As Dr. Michael Ryan of the World Health Organization recently explained, new tools and resources are being used to control Ebola as we speak. After spending time on the ground with vaccination teams and families in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dr. Ryan added, “for the first time in my experience, I saw hope in the face of Ebola and not terror.”
Today, more than 260 vaccines are in development to both prevent and treat diseases. The pipeline includes a vaccine to prevent HIV and a therapy focused on combating Alzheimer’s, among others. The science is incredible, but as a society we must do our part. Talk to your loved ones – family, friends, colleagues, or peers – and spread the word about the benefits of getting vaccinated. For ourselves and for our children and grandchildren, we can’t afford to do otherwise.
Phyllis Arthur is the Vice President for Infectious Diseases and Diagnostics Policy at BIO, responsible for working with member companies in vaccines, molecular diagnostics and bio-defense on policy, legislative and regulatory issues.