How much are childhood vaccines worth to America? Nearly $1.7 trillion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That dollar figure represents the net savings of 20 years' worth of vaccines administered to American children born between 1994 and 2013 over their entire lifetimes, according to a report in Friday's edition of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. An estimated $295 billion worth of that savings comes in the form of direct costs averted, and $1.38 trillion is the estimated value of savings to society.

Researchers decided to examine the costs and benefits of vaccinations of the federal Vaccines for Children (VFC) program two decades after it was implemented in 1994. The program helps make sure that kids don't miss recommended vaccines due to an inability to pay. It was created after an outbreak of 55,000 cases of measles between 1989 and 1991 that was attributed to "widespread failure to vaccinate uninsured children," according to the report.

When VFC began, the program covered immunizations for nine diseases: measles, mumps, rubella, polio, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis (also known as whooping cough), Haemophilus influenzae type b disease and hepatitis B. The program has since expanded to include vaccines for varicella (chickenpox), hepatitis A, flu, rotavirus and pneumococcal disease.

To quantify the benefits of the vaccination effort, researchers from the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases compared vaccination rates in the 1994-2013 period (as measured by the National Health Interview Survey, or NHIS) with data from 1967-1985 (from the U.S. Immunization Survey) and from 1991-1993 (from NHIS).

Over the entire lifetimes of the 78.6 million U.S. babies born in the first two decades of VFC, routine childhood vaccines will prevent an estimated 731,700 premature deaths, 21 million hospitalizations and 322 million illnesses, the researchers calculated. That works out to an average of 4.1 fewer illnesses per child and 0.27 fewer hospitalizations per child. (The researchers did not include vaccines for hepatitis A, seasonal flu or adolescent vaccines in their calculations.)

More than half of the prevented illnesses were of three types - nearly 70 million fewer cases of measles, 68 million fewer cases of chickenpox and 54 million fewer cases of whooping cough, according to the report. The vast majority of premature deaths averted - 507,300 - were deaths that would have been due to diphtheria, a bacterial infection in the upper respiratory tract.

--Los Angeles Times

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