Vaccine-preventable diseases cost the U.S. economy almost $9 billion in 2015, with unvaccinated adults responsible for 80 percent of that cost -- about $7.1 billion, according to a new study.
The study, published on Oct. 12 in the medical journal Health Affairs, calculated the overall economic impact by factoring in the cost of treatment, the cost of medication and lost productivity as those adults took time off work for treatment, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said.
People who opted to skip the flu vaccine did the most damage to the U.S. economy, researchers said. Only 42 percent of U.S. adults received the flu vaccine in 2015, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the remaining 58 percent bled the economy for $5.8 billion in health care costs and lost productivity.
Bacterial pneumococcal diseases, like meningitis and pneumonia, led to another $1.9 billion hit to the economy, the researchers said, while unvaccinated adults who contracted shingles were responsible for $782 million in lost economic productivity.
Sachiko Ozawa, an associate professor and the study's lead author, stopped short of saying vaccinations should be mandatory.
“We believe our estimates are conservative and highlight the potential economic benefit of increasing adult immunization coverage and the value of vaccines,” Ozawa said. “We hope our study will spur creative health care policies that minimize the negative spillover effects from people choosing not to be vaccinated while still respecting patients’ right to make informed choices.”
Reducing that spillover may become increasingly difficult as celebrities like Bill Maher, Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey and Kirstie Alley continue to link vaccines with disorders like autism and spread misinformation that directly contradicts almost every medical authority.
Compounding the problem, many anti-vaxxers claim health professionals and the government are in the pockets of the pharmaceutical industry, giving themselves an excuse to ignore data that shows, for example, that parents who refuse to vaccinate their children put their kids at significantly greater risk for outbreaks like measles.
Citing research from Emory University and John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health, a story in Slate magazine pointed out that people who refuse to get measles shots accounted for more than 70 percent of outbreaks over the last 15 years.
The University of North Carolina study was funded by Merck, a pharmaceutical giant that produces vaccines, a fact that some Twitter users were already pointing to as a way to discredit the research.
About 40 percent of U.S. parents either delay vaccinations for their children or do not have their children vaccinated because of fears that vaccines can lead to autism or developmental disorders, an article in The Atlantic noted.
One of those parents is Kristen O’Meara, a Chicago-area teacher who refused to have her kids vaccinated because, as she told "Good Morning America" in September, she was "pretty convinced" by online arguments against vaccines. Then all three of her children were stricken with a rotavirus that causes severe stomach pain and could have been prevented if they were vaccinated.
“I wish that I had taken more time to research both sides,” O’Meara told the show. “I wanted to share my personal story, and if it does help someone change their mind, then that’s great.”