Vaccines save 9 million lives a year globally

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Crossing Rivers Health CEO Bill Sexton himself received a flu shot this season. (Submitted photo)

By Correne Martin

Immunizations are the second most important medical advancement since people have been on this earth. They save 9 million lives across the globe each year and have the potential to save an additional 16 million lives annually if effective vaccines were deployed against all potentially vaccine-preventable diseases.

Crossing Rivers Health Emergency Medical Director Dr. Kevin Whitney stresses the importance of vaccines for a number of reasons.

“They decrease people’s likelihood of finding themselves in the emergency room,” Whitney assured. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that, among children born in the last 20 years, vaccinations will prevent more than 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths.

Also a benefit, herd immunity through vaccines creates an environment where infectious diseases cannot take hold and spread. Typically, 80 percent of the public is vaccinated and that threshold or higher is necessary in order to make a vaccine viable. Herd immunity is key for those who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons as well as for those who are sick, frail or among our youngest and most vulnerable elderly. Financially, routine childhood immunization programs save costs in treating hospitalized children as well.

In 1994, the U.S. government began its Vaccines for Children program, which provides vaccines to youths who family’s may not otherwise afford them. Since it started, the CDC estimates this program has not only saved children from illness and death, but it has also saved nearly $259 billion in direct costs and $1.38 trillion in societal costs.

Over the years, vaccines have been responsible for bringing seven major human diseases under some degree of control, according to Whitney. Those diseases include smallpox, diphtheria, tetanus, yellow fever, whooping cough, polio and measles.

“Smallpox was eliminated from the earth by vaccines,” Whitney said. “You never hear of diphtheria anymore.” Plus, there’s only 90,000 cases of polio worldwide and 360,000 of whooping cough currently. “Whooping cough has been on the upturn for a lot of reasons the last couple of years. We thought we had it under control, but studies show only 10 percent of American adults have kept up with their Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, aka whooping cough) booster dose. It costs about $10,000 per day to track down just one whooping cough case.”

Respiratory infections such as influenza and pneumonia are particularly dangerous for children and the elderly, resulting in at least 4.25 million deaths a year. The flu vaccine is recommended annually and protects against the three most prevalent strains circulating each year.

“The flu shot is an injectable protein. You can’t get the flu from the shot,” Whitney declared. “The vaccine doesn’t prevent everyone from getting the flu but, trust me, the vaccine decreases the severity of it.”

Immunizations like the flu, and whether to get them or not, are among the most controversial out there, the local doctor acknowledged. He said a big reason why that’s so is because of a fear or, in some cases, a lack of fear.

“We’ve been so good at eradicating diseases that people just don’t have that fear (of those diseases) anymore,” Whitney stated. “Also, you never know how many times your child was exposed to vaccine-preventable diseases and didn’t get them because he was protected by that vaccine.”

Furthermore, he said, there’s a lack of understanding of statistics. When vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks occur, vaccine critics like to use the point that more vaccinated children were infected than non-vaccinated children. This is true, but simply because there are more vaccinated kids than non-vaccinated kids, and vaccines are not 100 percent effective.

“The truth is, your risk of infection is much less (with the vaccine),” he added.

Additionally, there’s the common conspiracy theory that vaccines cause diseases to bring dollars into the health care industry. Whitney confirmed that’s simply not true. “For every dollar spent on childhood vaccines, it saves $18 in health care,” he said.

Unlike antibiotics and antivirals, which treat disease, the industry is frequently researching new immunizations. Whitney noted some of those studied most often are vaccines to protect against or stall the progression of cancers, HPV, HIV, hepatitis B and Alzheimer’s.

“Those are somewhat of epidemic proportions in their own right,” Whitney commented. “There’s a lot of exciting stuff out there and, I think, from a medical point of view, I’m a big fan of vaccines.”

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