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The Value of Prevention

July 8, 2014
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. A report issued by the CDC in April estimated that vaccines will prevent 732,000 deaths and 21 million hospitalizations among children born in the US over the past 20 years.

Despite this track record of overwhelming success, a recent New York Times article called into question the value of vaccinations. Yet in addition to saving lives and preventing illness, vaccines are also an excellent investment. In fact, the CDC predicts that vaccination of children born between 1994 and 2013 will save nearly $1.4 trillion in total societal costs, including $295 billion in direct costs.

Making these marvels possible is not easy. In order to ensure adequate access to vaccines, it is critical that payers act responsibly and recognize the tremendous value of vaccination. For providers to continue to fulfill their critical role as immunizers, they must be adequately reimbursed for purchasing and administering vaccines. There is also an ongoing need for vaccine education, as is evident from recent outbreaks of vaccine preventable illnesses, including a whooping cough outbreak in California that public health officials are calling a problem of “epidemic proportions.”

Companies involved in vaccine production make substantial and ongoing investments in research, development and infrastructure to continually improve current vaccines as well as discover new ones. Over at Forbes, David Kroll has an excellent response to the Times article which underscores this point:
I’d also expand on Rosenthal’s interview with a Pfizer spokeswoman on the tremendous investments of dollars and time in establishing and validating a new biomanufacturing facility. Merck, for example, invested over $1 billion over the last nine years to expand its vaccine production capabilities...

At each stage of building, the facilities are generally required to operate for two years or more without actually making a single vaccine. As part of FDA validation, the plant has to run a dummy solution through the entire production line to reproducibly demonstrate sterility of the process, lack of foreign particulate matter, proper freeze-drying of vaccines for reconstitution, etc.

Despite the expense and effort involved, companies continue to invest in research aimed at creating the next generation of vaccines. A 2013 report by PhRMA found nearly 300 vaccines in development for illnesses including malaria and HIV.

A short-sighted focus on the cost of vaccines threatens to curtail this research and the substantial benefits it brings to our economy and to patients.