Why vaccines are important for our country’s financial health, too

Claire McCarthy, MD
Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

Imagine there was a simple treatment that could be given to babies and toddlers that was not only remarkably effective in preventing illness, but also inexpensive. And imagine that this treatment was not only inexpensive, but also lowered overall health care costs.

There’s no need to imagine; the treatment exists. It’s called immunization.

It’s National Infant Immunization Week, a time to recognize and celebrate immunization. It’s during infancy that we give the most vaccines, but the benefits extend far beyond infancy and beyond those babies. The protection lasts for years, keeping babies safe from vaccine-preventable illnesses as they grow — and, by decreasing the number of sick children who might make others sick, vaccines protect entire communities.

But one aspect of immunization that doesn’t get as much attention is the impact they can have on health care costs. Given that national health expenditures were 17.8% of the Gross Domestic Product in 2015 (nearly $10,000 per person) and are expected to rise more than 5% a year through 2025, we need to pay attention to anything that cuts costs — especially when it cuts costs by preventing illness.

The current recommended immunization schedule calls for babies to get the following vaccines by about 18 months of age (some of these are given as combination vaccines):

  • Four doses of vaccines against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, Haemophilus influenzae, and pneumococcus
  • Three doses of vaccine against polio and hepatitis B
  • Two doses of influenza vaccine (possibly three depending on when the child is born)
  • One dose of vaccine against measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, and hepatitis A

Prevention costs less than treatment

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the cost of all of these vaccines is approximately $1,200 if obtained through CDC contracts, and about $1,600 if obtained through private insurance. While this sounds like a chunk of change, it’s nothing compared to the costs of doctor visits or hospitalizations.

The cost of an average doctor’s visit varies, but a sick visit can be $100-$200, more if any tests are needed. Emergency room visits can be several hundred dollars or more. Hospitalizations run in the thousands, sometimes tens of thousands. The average cost of a hospitalization to care for a baby with dehydration from rotavirus (a relatively simple problem) is $3,000-$5,000.

And if a child ends up with any disability from the illness —paralysis from polio, or neurologic problems from encephalitis caused by measles or varicella, or meningitis caused by Haemophilus or pneumococcus — the ongoing costs of treatments and special school services could be quite high.

Why immunization makes financial sense

There are also the costs that occur when parents must stay home to care for a sick child. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly wage in the US is about $26 an hour. That means that every day off to care for a sick child is a lost $208 in wages, not to mention lost productivity.

It’s true that because vaccines are so effective, there are many fewer cases of vaccine-preventable diseases. This creates a “herd immunity,” meaning that the vaccinated people are protecting the unvaccinated ones; there are fewer of the germs around to catch. But there are still cases — and all it takes is a couple of $20,000 admissions for pertussis, $30,000 admissions for Haemophilus meningitis, or $37,000 heart surgeries for babies with congenital rubella syndrome, to show how vaccination makes good financial sense. And if fewer people vaccinate and the herd immunity breaks down, the costs will grow.

Prevention makes sense, not just for the physical health of our children and all our citizens, but for the financial health of our country, too.