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Vaccines could reap major macroeconomic benefits, but research is pending

Posted September 11, 2015

Immunizations help prevent major life-threatening diseases, they can lessen the seasonal flu epidemics, give you a peace of mind on a tropic trip and so on, and so forth. However, scheduled and one-off vaccinations lead to more than just individual benefits. (And far from it.)

Image credit: Andres Rueda via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Image credit: Andres Rueda via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

At the very least (or most), better health means better quality of life, as well as reduced medical bills for both you and/or the state. But these, according to the research in the field, are only “narrow” benefits of vaccinations.

“Broad” incorporate much more – and what follows is subtle, but quite comprehensible math.  Less time lost to the sickbed (or spent caring for someone) means more days at work, increased household income and expenditure. When this is considered from the population’s point of view, sizable economic benefits certainly come to mind.

Besides, illness usually claims more than just time and money – a number of diseases can leave a mark for life, reducing the physical and/or cognitive abilities of the individual. Prevention could thus ensure no potential is lost this way, and lead to better educational outcomes. This is especially true for our youngest ones, since early childhood development is critical for success later in life. From the economics point of view, greater lifetime achievement also means larger lifetime earnings and spending.

The list of “broad” vaccination benefits goes on to include factors from increased GDPs to sensitive social issues, such as decreased fertility and increased female labour, and equity in the world’s health outcomes. The former may be enabled by improved child health and survival, while the latter – by initiating immunization programs in the poorest, mostly healthcare-deprived areas. Naturally, both are especially important in the context of the developing countries.

While a lot of this seems common sense, research in the area is severely lacking. For example, WHO researchers have recently found that evidence of the “broad” vaccination benefits in a variety of categories is either lacking or limited to a few observational cases, which cannot be scaled up to the global level. Fairly enough, such subtle downstream effects of single vaccinations can be rather difficult to pinpoint.

On the other side, immunizations might represent only one piece of the puzzle. For example, recent modelling studies have discovered that vaccines are only creditable to about 27% of the prevented childhood diarrhea and pneumonia deaths, while the rest is thanks to better hygiene, nutrition and care. Same could be true for other vaccine-preventable diseases, where the long term effects of immunizations run the risk of being overrated.

Regardless, other health initiatives are known to bring about positive economic changes both short and long term, therefore vaccines should be expected to do the same – at least to an extent. This understanding could become a major player in the decision making surrounding vaccines, including the investment decisions, risk assessment and, no less, personal choice.

Source:  Jit, M. et al. (2015) BMC Medicine 13:209.

Written by Eglė Marija Ramanauskaitė

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