Commentary: Flu vaccines save all of us money

Let’s get something clear: Flu vaccination might be a personal decision, but the consequences of not vaccinating affect all of us.

Unvaccinated adults don’t just risk their own health and well-being — and those of the people around them. They also cost us $7.1 billion a year. And by “us,” I mean all of us. Taxpayers. Employers. Co-workers.

Why? Because not one of us lives in total and complete isolation. We’re part of an interlocking society, interdependent on each other’s choices. And nowhere is that more obvious than in matters of public health, especially communicable diseases that could easily be prevented by vaccination.

The figure of $7.1 billion comes from a comprehensive study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published in the journal Health Affairs. Researchers looked at 10 adult vaccines recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the numbers of people stricken with those preventable diseases and the costs incurred —as well as medications required for their illnesses, doctor’s visits and hospitalizations, and lost productivity in the workplace.

Researchers found that by far the costliest disease is the flu, a disease many people mistakenly think of as a mild illness. After all, we commonly lump it in with the common cold, using the term “colds and flu.” But make no mistake: Influenza is a killer that takes an average of 23,000 lives a year and causes more than 200,000 hospitalizations in the U.S. alone. And those costs really add up — for all of us.

When those flu victims are on some form of public health insurance, such as Medicare for the nation’s senior citizens, there is a direct cost to the taxpayers. When they are on private insurance, it still affects others because insurance costs are pooled among the members. When some people in those pools incur high medical costs, the premiums go up the next year for everyone in the pool.

Then, of course, there’s the cost to companies when employees are out for extended periods with serious illnesses; the lost productivity means reduced profit, which translates into less hiring and suppressed wages. The total tab for flu alone? Nearly $5.8 billion, the study found, more than all the other vaccine-preventable illnesses combined. It was followed by pneumococcal disease, which can cause meningitis and pneumonia ($1.9 billion) and shingles ($782 million).

We have an easy and effective solution to these heavy costs: vaccination.

Flu vaccines save our society an extraordinary amount of money. The CDC estimates that during 2014-15, the vaccines prevented about 966,000 medical visits a year and 67,000 hospitalizations. That’s not to mention the misery and fatalities avoided; about 1.9 million people didn’t get sick with flu thanks to the vaccine. And that was a flu season during which the vaccine was not a particularly effective one; most years, vaccination prevents far more hospitalizations.

Yet, fewer than half of Texas adults were vaccinated against flu in 2015. Imagine how much healthier and wealthier our state and nation would be if we could get that number close to rates for childhood immunizations — a success that saves the United States roughly $68.8 billion a year.

All of us play our part. We can start by getting the flu vaccine each and every year for ourselves and our families. And lawmakers and community leaders need to make improving vaccination rates for adults — especially against flu — a priority.

After all, for those who want to help businesses, reduce the burden of taxes and help the middle class with rising health-insurance costs, promoting higher vaccination rates for adults is one of the smartest policies imaginable.

Dragsbaek is president and CEO of the Immunization Partnership, a statewide nonprofit organization that aims to eradicate vaccine-preventable diseases.

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