Vaccines are the best way to spend healthcare dollars

We are faced with an outbreak that requires us to act and renew our commitment to vaccines. Now is the time to invest in funding and rethink the way to talk to parents about immunizations. On Monday, the Pew Research Center published a poll that found that 1 in 10 parents think the measles vaccine is not safe for their children. Studies show us that immunizations are one of the most successful public health interventions ever created. As lawmakers and leaders, we must invest in the research and development of safe and effective vaccines, and educational tools so that parents understand the facts about these vaccines.

In the years immediately preceding the introduction of the measles vaccine in 1963, approximately 90 percent of Americans were infected with measles by the time they turned 15 years old, and about 450 people died each year from measles.  As a child in Texas, I had the measles before these vaccines were developed. Now, thanks to a highly effective vaccination program and public health system to detect and respond to outbreaks, the U.S. achieved a major public health milestone, when measles was officially eliminated in 2000. 

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Unfortunately, that victory was short-lived.  Last year, there were 644 cases of measles in the U.S.  And in the first month of this year alone, there have been more than 120 cases. This is particularly tragic given that we have a vaccine that is incredibly safe and more than 95 percent effective against measles. 

And measles is not the only vaccine-preventable disease we are currently grappling with. Last year, there were 2,515 cases of pertussis in Texas; 546 cases were in babies younger than a year old, and two people died.  

Pediatricians across the country tell heart-breaking stories of babies dying of meningitis caused by Haemophilus influenzae type B. Since the introduction of the vaccine, incidence of this potentially deadly infection has declined by 99 percent. 

There are many more examples, but the message is simple: Investments in vaccines save lives.  Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put out an analysis of how many children’s lives have been saved by immunizations between 1994 and 2013. The CDC estimated that among the 78.6 million children born during that period, vaccines prevented 322 million illnesses, 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 premature deaths.

If those numbers were not compelling enough, the CDC also estimated that vaccines could save as much as $402 billion in direct costs and $1.5 trillion in societal costs. In 2011, the CDC estimated that 111 million workdays were lost to flu at the cost of approximately $7 billion in sick days and lost productivity. Every dollar we spend immunizing our children saves nearly $24 in future healthcare costs.

Unfortunately it took a measles outbreak that began at Disneyland to remind us about how truly valuable life-saving vaccines are, but it is great to see that vaccines are getting the positive attention that they deserve. The measles outbreak has helped spur the national conversation about getting vaccinated. Vaccines save lives, keep our kids and parents healthy and promote public health.

We should seize on the current enthusiasm for vaccines and make real commitments to protecting our kids and parents against vaccine-preventable diseases. The Affordable Care Act gives many Americans first dollar coverage for vaccines. This is great, but it is not enough. Making sure people are immunized takes more than just insurance coverage.

Since 1996, our office has hosted annual immunization events in our district, where thousands of children receive free vaccines. Through events like ours and a coordinated effort at the city and county level, the immunization rate in Harris County has increased from 64 percent of children in 2002 to 75 percent today.

Vaccines eradicated smallpox, brought us close to eliminating polio, and protect our children from common childhood illnesses like measles and mumps. These are diseases that we often associate with the early 20th century, before effective vaccines were available. To keep these diseases a thing of the past, we must robustly fund public health programs, invest in vaccine development and technology, and better educate the public and healthcare community. 

This year, the flu vaccine is only 23 percent effective. We need better flu vaccine technology, particularly because it is a vaccine that we have to get every year. The current pertussis vaccine does not provide lifelong immunity, which is one reason we experience these potentially deadly outbreaks. We can do better.

We also need robust delivery systems so that it is easy to get vaccinated. People should be able to get vaccines in pharmacies or at their workplace. This will require investment in information technology so that if you get a vaccine, that information makes it into your health record. 

The public and healthcare providers have to be better educated about vaccines — which ones they need and how to get them.

All of these activities require resources. But these will be dollars well spent. In fact, they may be the most important investments we can make in our nation’s health. 

Green has represented Texas’s 29th Congressional District since 1993. He sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee and is ranking member on the Subcommittee on Health.