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Figuring The Cost-Benefit Ratio of Vaccines
Vaccines have helped transform health and healthcare around the globe. It’s hard to believe that diseases like polio, smallpox, diphtheria, and whooping cough were common ailments within the last century. Today, these diseases are virtually or totally eradicated. This change is largely due the development of vaccines, which give our bodies the tools to fight disease-causing viruses and bacteria more effectively than they can by themselves.
The CDC has calculated that many millions of additional deaths would be expected each year if we were to stop vaccinating today.(1) The GAVI alliance, a nonprofit that works to bring vaccinations to people across the globe, estimates that even today, every 20 seconds one life is lost to vaccine-preventable diseases: this is the equivalent of 1.7 million preventable deaths worldwide each year.(2) Other estimates suggest that this number is much higher, at 3 million.(1)(2)
Despite their well-documented benefits, vaccines are frequently the subjects of public concern. Worries about safe manufacture, the effects of additives, and vaccines’ side effects are some of the concerns that have accompanied vaccines in recent years.
It is possible to weigh the costs or risks of vaccines against the benefits they make possible and come up with a cost-benefit ratio. Considering what vaccines are all about, including how and where they are made and which concerns are legitimate and which appear unfounded yields a cost-benefit calculation that isn’t as tricky as you might believe.
What Is A Vaccine?
Vaccines help the body fight disease by giving it a “preview” of a pathogen that it might someday have to fight in earnest. Vaccines contain a version of a microbe, often an inactive form of a virus or bacterium, which triggers the immune system to make antibodies. Live, “attenuated” organisms in vaccines like measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) are weakened forms of the microbe – they trigger an immune reaction, but they are not as virulent as the real thing, so they are less able to cause infection. Still, the immune system treats the live viruses in vaccines as if they were “real,” and quickly creates antibodies against them.
Other vaccines, like hepatitis A and influenza, use “killed” organisms, which are also effective in triggering the immune system to make antibodies, yet they pose even less risk of infection because they are less intact.(3) The immune system clears the microbes, or pieces of microbes, from the body, but, as with a regular infection, the antibodies remain. In this way, if an actual microbe is encountered, the body will be well prepared to attack it – because it already has antibodies against it – before the microbe leads to a full blown infection.