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Vaccines against rotavirus have kept hundreds of thousands of children out of the hospital, saving nearly $1 billion in healthcare costs.
Vaccines against a common cause of infant diarrhea have kept hundreds of thousands of children out of the hospital, saving nearly $1 billion in their first four years, a new study shows.
The study is one of three reports in today’sPediatrics that show the far-ranging impact of childhood vaccinations. The papers are being published as the USA faces its largest number of measles cases – 334 – in two decades. Current measles outbreaks are being fueled by parents who skip vaccines or avoid them altogether, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The first of the new studies focuses on rotavirus, which causes severe diarrhea and dehydration. In the first four years they were available, vaccines against rotavirus prevented more than 176,000 hospitalizations, 242,000 emergency department visits, and 1.1 million doctor’s visits among children under 5, the study says. The vaccines saved an estimated $924 million during the same period, 2007 to 2011, according to the CDC study.
The CDC recommended the first rotavirus vaccine, RotaTeq, in 2006, and began recommending another version, Rotarix, after it became available in 2008.
The vaccines continue to protect children against the virus years later, with no sign that immunity weakens over time, the study says.
The vaccines also have reduced illness among unvaccinated children, simply because there have been fewer sick people to spread the virus, a phenomenon known as herd immunity, the study says.
Up to 60 American children a year died before the vaccine was available, despite the best medical care. Before the vaccine was available, more than 400,000 visited the doctor, more than 200,000 visited emergency rooms and up to 70,000 were hospitalized each year, the CDC says.
A second study found that the chickenpox vaccine slashed the number of hospitalizations by 90% from 1994 to 2009. The chickenpox shot was first licensed in 1995. The CDC now recommends a first shot at age 1 and a booster between ages 4 to 6.
Although many parents see chickenpox as merely a nuisance, the infection can be dangerous. It killed about 100 Americans a year and sent nearly 11,000 to the hospital, according to the CDC. About half of deaths were in adults, who are far more likely than children to suffer complications from chickenpox.
At the time the vaccine was licensed, some doctors worried that immunity would fade, leaving children unprotected in their teens or early adult years, when chickenpox infection is more dangerous.
Two decades later, however, it’s clear that the chickenpox shot has actually protected people of all ages, says Roger Baxter, the study’s lead author and co-director of the Kaiser Permanente Vaccine Study Center in Oakland, Calif. Chickenpox infections fell 90% to 95% for children ages 5 to 19.
Thanks to herd immunity, chickenpox has declined in all age groups.
Vaccines have slashed rates of disease and death in many other conditions, the CDC says. Haemophilus Influenzae Type b, or Hib, once sickened 20,000 children with severe disease each year and killed 1,000. Today, there are fewer than five deaths a year.
A third study illustrates the dangers of skipping vaccines.
This study, led by the Minnesota Department of Health, described the origins and consequences of a 2011 measles outbreaks in a Somali-American community in Minnesota. The outbreak began with an unvaccinated American child returning from a visit to Africa, who spread the virus to a 9-month-old baby living in a homeless shelter who was too young for routine vaccination.
In all, the outbreak infected 21 people, with a median age of 1 year old, the study says. About 67% were hospitalized, mostly for breathing complications and dehydration.
Doctors say they hope those findings will help modern parents – most of whom have never seen a case of measles – understand how dangerous the disease is.
“People think, ‘With modern medicine, we can take kids to the doctor and they can fix everything,’ ” says Julie Boom, associate professor of pediatrics at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who wasn’t involved in the new studies. “But there are 150 pediatric deaths every year from influenza, many in previously healthy children.”
Boom says she hopes grandparents – who remember the fear and heartache caused by diseases such as polio and whooping cough — will remind their children to take these diseases seriously, by sharing stories from the days before vaccines.
“It’s all of our jobs to educate people about how bad these diseases really are,” Boom says.
Many parents in the Somali community had refused the measles-mumps-rubella shot out of concerns about autism, the study says. Andrew Wakefield, author of a discredited 1998 paper in The Lancet linking autism and vaccines, visited the community at least four times, just before and during the outbreak, the study says.The Lancet retracted the paper and Wakefield lost his right to practice medicine in England.
“The data show so clearly that vaccines work,” says Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Boston. “They keep us healthier. They cut health care costs. And when people don’t immunize, it leads to disease outbreaks, like they saw with the Minnesota case. You would think that in the face of all of this clear and compelling information, everyone would want to get their children immunized — and yet that’s not the case.”
McCarthy says doctors need to do a better job listening to parents’ fears.
“Vaccine hesitancy isn’t about data and information,” McCarthy says. “It’s about fear and distrust. Somehow, that’s what we need to understand better and fight if we want to save more people from vaccine-preventable diseases. Instead of just telling people that vaccines are safe and effective, maybe we need to listen—and ask people what would make them less afraid.”