Across Washington, vaccination campaigns are improving residents’ well-being.
Just five years ago, our state’s kindergartners were the least vaccinated in the country, with a vaccine opt-out rate of 7.6 percent. According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control, that number has fallen to just 4.6 percent, a trend that is likely behind the recent decline in whooping cough cases.
But while the health benefits of vaccines are widely recognized, the economic significance of these treatments is just now becoming apparent. In the next few years, advances in vaccines will help reduce health-care costs while creating countless new jobs. Our state could find itself at the center of this medical and economic revolution — but only if state leaders continue to support policies that make Washington a welcome place for medical innovation.
Vaccines are currently one of the most exciting areas of medical research. Some 271 new vaccines are in development for treating or preventing everything from malaria and HIV/AIDS to cancer. Aside from their obvious medical benefits, these new vaccines will have a sizeable effect on our economy; averting disease helps keep Americans out of the hospital and soaring health-care costs in check.
This relationship between medical innovation and health-care costs has been seen most obviously in the field of cancer research. University of Chicago economists have found that reducing cancer death rates by 10 percent could produce as much as $4.4 trillion in economic benefits.
What does cancer research have to with vaccines? Quite a bit, it turns out. Many of the vaccines currently in the development pipeline are intended for the treatment of cancer. Unlike traditional vaccines, which prevent illness, cancer vaccines help patients fight off their disease once it’s already developed.
Researchers are working on vaccines for treating breast cancer, ovarian cancer, lung cancer and pancreatic cancer, among many other forms of the illness. And our state is already a significant contributor to this groundswell of breakthroughs. Seattle-based Dendreon recently released a vaccine for those with prostate cancer. Other pharmaceutical companies with an office or operations in Washington — such as Amgen, GlaxoSmithKline and Takeda — have been behind some of the field’s most impressive developments.
Dozens of new vaccines are also being tested for the treatment of infectious diseases. Much like cancer medicines, treatments for this category of illness have an impressive record of reducing health spending.
The eradication of smallpox in 1977 is estimated to save $300 million a year. Every dollar spent on the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, meanwhile, is thought to save $21 in medical costs. And every dollar spent on the humble flu shot prevents another $2 in related spending.
Tomorrow’s infectious disease vaccines are also likely to carry impressive economic benefits. Consider malaria, a disease for which five new vaccines are in development. As Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs has noted, countries with a high malaria rates have income levels that are only a third of countries where the illness is less prevalent. Advances in preventing malaria, therefore, could go a long way towards lifting developing nations out of poverty. Potential vaccinations for the Ebola virus, dengue fever, yellow fever, typhoid and cholera could have similar effects.
Washingtonians are especially well situated to gain from this medical renaissance, as pharmaceutical research is already a vital part of our state economy. Bioscience firms support more than 45,000 Washington jobs that, altogether, pay Evergreen Staters $1.1 billion in compensation. The sector is also a significant source of state revenue, generating nearly $200 million in taxes each year. If Washington continues to be a leader in the creation of new vaccines, our economy will be all the stronger for it.
However, we can’t take this wave of innovation for granted. Our state is currently one of the best places in the nation to conduct biotechnology and pharmaceutical research, largely because of tax incentives designed to encourage investment in these fields. But, on average, the development of a new drug costs $1.3 billion and takes 10 to 15 years of research and development.
Given this enormous expense, state leaders need to support policies that make it easier and more cost-effective for firms to carry out their research here in Washington.
Washingtonians should be proud that our state is on the vanguard of vaccine innovation. Let’s fight to make sure it stays that way. Our lives — and our economy — may depend on it.
H. Stewart Parker is CEO of the Infectious Disease Research Institute in Seattle.