A new study published in the journal Health Affairs pegged the cost to the U.S. economy of people opting not to vaccinate against vaccine-preventable diseases at $7.1 billion in 2015. The study, performed by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and funded by Merck & Co., based the figure on estimates of medical and lost productivity costs related to being sick.1 2 3 4
The research team, led by Sachiko Ozawa, PhD, associate professor at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy,5 studied 10 vaccines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including the vaccines against hepatitis A and B; herpes zoster virus; human papillomavirus (HPV); influenza; measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR); meningococcal disease; pneumococcal disease; tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis (Tdap); and chickenpox.1 3
According to the study, the most expensive disease was influenza, which cost the economy an estimated $5.8 billion.1 2 3 That figure is based largely on the CDC estimate that 42 percent of adults in the U.S. over the age of 18 received the flu vaccine during the 2015-2016 flu season, resulting in a total of 17 million cases of the flu.1 3 4
The assumption here seems to be that most, if not all, of those 17 million flu cases could have been prevented had the remaining 58 percent of adults gotten their flu shot—an extremely shaky assumption, given that even the CDC admits flu shots fail half the time.6
According to Barbara Loe Fisher, co-founder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC):
After studying influenza infections during 2012-2013 in the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Washington and Pennsylvania, U.S. public health officials reported in 2015 that flu vaccine effectiveness was quite low: between 39 percent and 66 percent, depending upon the influenza strain.6
Fisher further notes that public health officials found that for adults over 65 years old, vaccine effectiveness was nearly zero and that vaccine effectiveness was “unexpectedly low” for the influenza A strain among older children compared to other age groups—a ”especially for those who had gotten previous annual flu shots.”
Let that sink in for a moment. Flu shots don’t work on the elderly and flu shots have an “unexpectedly” low effectiveness in older children, but particularly in those who have gotten flu shots before. That’s an awful lot of people in our society for whom the influenza vaccine is largely useless.
To top it off, Fisher points out that health officials also found that people who were more likely to report that their general health status was “excellent” were those who were unvaccinated.6
More recently, during the 2014-2015 flu season, the CDC estimated the flu vaccine was only 23 percent effective.7 Earlier this year, the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommended against using the nasal spray version of the flu vaccine called FluMist because it was deemed to fail 97 percent of the time. Only three percent effective? For all practical purposes, FluMist provides no protection, or at least “no protective benefit” that can be measured.8
So, therein lies the second problem with the UNC study—a flawed key assumption. It is a classic case of what plagues the reliability of many vaccine cost benefit studies: garbage in, garbage out.
The influenza vaccine is not the panacea that is being marketed to the public. Not even close.
The first problem, of course, is that the study was funded by Merck, creating an obvious conflict of interest. In 2015, Merck earned $5.9 billion from the sale of vaccines.9 The only company in the world that made more money off of vaccines last year was Pfizer, with a total of $6.4 billion in vaccine sales.9
Apparently, the members of the team that conducted the study said the money from Merck did not create a conflict of interest,3 but that is not exactly an unbiased opinion. Even before she joined the faculty at UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, the team’s leader, Dr. Ozawa, had led a research team that had received millions of dollars from companies and foundations with a vested interest in the production and sale of vaccines, including Merck.5
Bottom line: The UNC study cannot be taken seriously because it is based on a flawed underlying assumption and principal investigators have a huge conflict of interest.
1 Ozawa S, Portnoy A, Getaneh H, Clark S, Knoll M, Bishai D, Yang HK, Patwardhan PD. Modeling The Economic Burden Of Adult Vaccine-Preventable Diseases In The United States. Health Affairs Oct. 12, 2016.
2 Johnson CY. The $5.8 billion argument for getting your flu shot. The Washington Post Oct. 13, 2016.
3 Keeffe P. People Who Don’t Get Vaccinations Cost U.S. Economy $7 Billion a Year. Healthline Oct. 24, 2016.
4 Reilly M. The Hidden Cost of Avoiding Vaccines. MIT Technology Review Oct. 13, 2016.
5 Wotus M. Sachiko Ozawa Joins PACE as Associate Professor. UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy. Oct. 17, 2016.
6 Fisher BL. CDC Admits Flu Shots Fail Half the Time. NVIC.org Apr. 26, 2016.
7 Cáceres M. On the Question of Vaccine Effectiveness. The Vaccine Reaction Aug. 19, 2015.
8 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ACIP votes down use of LAIV for 2016-2017 flu season. CDC.gov June 22, 2016.
9 TVR Staff. Study: World Vaccine Market Will Be Worth $45.1 Billion by 2022. The Vaccine Reaction June 8, 2016.