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Rising Costs Complicate Vaccine Guidelines

Dr. Donald Brown, left, gives 14-year-old Kelly Kent a dose of Gardasil, a vaccine for the human papillomavirus in 2006. The group that advises the U.S. government on vaccination recommendations is now starting to take costs for vaccines like Gardasil into consideration as vaccine prices rise. (AP)

The group that advises the U.S. government on vaccination thinks some new vaccines may not be worth the cost.

In 2009, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, or ACIP, decided it's not cost effective to routinely vaccinate boys for human papillomavirus, though they do recommend the vaccine for girls. Now the group is struggling to decide whether infants and toddlers should get costly new vaccines to prevent a form of meningitis caused by bacteria.

The new emphasis on cost comes as vaccines are arriving that run more than $100 a dose, while only preventing illness in a relatively small number of people.

"In the 1980s, cost effectiveness, indeed even the cost of vaccines, just wasn't discussed," says William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University and an ACIP liaison representative from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. "Now it plays a regular and quite prominent role."

ACIP recommendations are used by both the government and private insurers to decide which vaccines they'll pay for.

The meningitis vaccines offer some insight into how things have changed at ACIP, Schaffner says. They protect people from bacteria that can cause meningococcal disease, which affects the blood and brain and can kill in hours. The disease is rare, but tends to strike young people, including babies and college students.

"If there's an illness that is highly notable and feared by the population, that's it," Schaffner says "No parent wants their child to have this illness."

So back in 2005 ACIP recommended that every adolescent in the U.S. get the vaccine. It costs nearly $100 a dose, which means hundreds of millions of dollars a year paid by the government and private insurers. But the bacteria cause illness in only a couple of thousand people in the U.S. each year, and that number was going down even before the vaccine arrived.

So that makes vaccination is a very expensive way to save lives, says Schaffner, who is part of an ACIP work group studying the meningococcal vaccine

"Curiously, the cost-benefit analyses regarding the use of meningococcal vaccine are usually acknowledged but put to the side, Schaffner says. That's what happened in 2005, when ACIP members recommended routine vaccination for adolescents.

Frustrated By Rising Costs

But cost got a lot more attention late last year after it turned out that young people would need a booster shot after just five years. At an ACIP meeting in October, committee members and public health officials spoke repeatedly about the money involved.

"Is it appropriate to almost double the amount of money spent on this program?" asked ACIP member Cody Meissner, a professor of pediatrics at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

Other speakers noted that it would cost $189 dollars per vaccination and that the annual cost to the government alone would be $387 million dollars. All that spending would prevent just 23 deaths, they said.

Ultimately, ACIP went ahead and recommended the booster. But the cost discussion has only become more intense. At an ACIP meeting in February, CDC director Thomas Frieden told members that his agency now spends more than $3.5 billion a year on vaccines for children. And he made it clear that he's frustrated by the rising costs.

"Most newer products and new formulations of old products have come at substantially higher prices," Frieden said. "And we've also seen prices rising after initial federal contracts were set and prices failing to fall when vaccine schedules are compressed or a second vaccine manufacturer enters the market. These are not things we would expect under normal economic conditions."

A Dollar Value On Death Or Disease?

For their part, manufacturers say most vaccines still aren't very profitable. They also note that when prices were lower, companies stopped developing new vaccines or simply got out of the vaccine business.

So now ACIP members find themselves in the difficult position of deciding not just how much good a vaccine can do, but whether it's worth the cost. To help, they've begun to include presentations by experts on cost-effectiveness in their deliberations.

But experts can't solve the fundamental problem of how to put a dollar value on preventing death or disease, says Mark Pauly, a health economist at the University of Pennsylvania.

"You do have a rough idea that if it's $1.98 per life saved that sounds like a good thing to do and if it's $198 million per life saved, that sounds like not a good thing to do," he says. "But where to draw the line is the part that any sensible person will run away screaming from trying to answer that question."

One solution would be to have federal elected officials draw the line, and simply ask ACIP to apply it, Pauly says. "Ultimately the buck has to stop at the legislature," he says.

But lawmakers don't seem eager to get into the rationing business. And the nation as a whole seems unwilling to engage in what Pauly calls the "adult conversation" about how much is too much for a vaccine.

So it may be up to ACIP. And the meningococcal vaccine may be what forces the issue. In April, the FDA approved a two-dose version for infants and toddlers. That means it will soon be possible to protect even very young children.

That could prevent dozens of infants from getting sick and a handful from dying. But the cost of establishing and maintaining that protection will be high — perhaps more than $1 billion a year.

And the committee that's been studying the problem for ACIP has been hinting that it feels the cost of the vaccine is too high.

"We are drifting slowly to a conservative position which is, maybe it doesn't have to be recommended universally," Schaffner says.

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Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

When the polio vaccine arrived in the 1950s, it cost less than $2 a dose and saved thousands of lives. Today, some vaccines run more than a hundred dollars a dose, while preventing illness in only a few people.

As NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, that has the government debating if some new vaccines are worth the price.

JON HAMILTON: New vaccines are approved by the FDA, but how many people get them depends largely on a group called ACIP, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Both the government and private insurers use ACIP recommendations to decide which vaccines they'll pay for.

As the cost of vaccines has risen, ACIP members have found themselves spending more and more time on economics. William Schaffner, from Vanderbilt University, says once vaccine that highlights the issue protects against bacteria that can cause meningitis.

Dr. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER (Chairman, Department of Preventive Medicine, Vanderbilt University): If there is an illness that is highly notable and feared by the population, that's it. No parent wants their child to have this illness.

HAMILTON: It tends to attack young people and can kill in a matter of hours. Outbreaks on college campuses have received a lot of media attention. So, back in 2005, ACIP recommended that every adolescent in the U.S. get the vaccine. It costs nearly $100 a dose, which means hundreds of millions of dollars a year paid by the government and private insurers.

But the bacteria infect only a couple of thousand people in the U.S. each year, and that number was going down even before the vaccine arrived.

Schaffner, who is part of an ACIP group that study meningitis, says in this case, vaccination is a very expensive away to save lives. And yet, he says...

Dr. SCHAFFNER: Curiously, the cost-benefit analyses regarding the use of meningococcal vaccine are usually acknowledged but put to the side.

HAMILTON: Not anymore. Late last year, ACIP members gathered in Atlanta to discuss whether to recommend a booster shot. Again and again, committee members and public health officials came back to the cost.

Unidentified Man #1: Is it appropriate to almost double the amount of money spent on this program?

Unidentified Woman #1: One of the drivers of this analysis is the price of the vaccine.

Unidentified Man #2: So the cost per vaccinae(ph) would be $189.

Unidentified Woman #2: Approximate cost of $387 million annually.

HAMILTON: Nearly $400 million to prevent about 23 deaths. Ultimately, ACIP went ahead and recommended the booster, even though it doubled the cost. But Schaffner says that debate reveals how much things have changed at ACIP.

Dr. SCHAFFNER: Back in the day, in the 1980s, cost-effectiveness - indeed, even the cost of vaccines just wasn't discussed. In part because vaccines were so much cheaper then.

HAMILTON: Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spends more than $3.5 billion a year just on vaccines for children. And in February, at another ACIP meeting, CDC Director Thomas Frieden made it clear that he's frustrated.

Dr. THOMAS (Director, CDC): Most newer products and new formulations of old products have come at substantially higher prices. And we've also seen prices rising after initial federal contracts were set, and prices failing to fall when vaccine schedules are compressed or a second vaccine manufacturer enters the market.

HAMILTON: For their part, manufacturers say most vaccines still aren't very profitable. They also note that when prices were lower, companies stopped developing new vaccines or simply got out of the vaccine business.

So now, Schaffner says, ACIP members find themselves in the difficult position of deciding not just how much good a vaccine can do, but whether it's worth the cost.

Dr. SCHAFFNER: I think it's fair to say it's that aspect of their deliberations with which they're least familiar.

HAMILTON: ACIP meetings now include presentations by experts on cost-effectiveness.

But Mark Pauly, a health economist at the University of Pennsylvania, says that doesn't solve the fundamental problem.

Professor MARK PAULY (Health Economist, University of Pennsylvania): You do have a rough idea that if it's $1.98 per life saved, that sounds like a good thing to do. And if it's $198 million per life saved, that sounds like not a good thing to do. But where to draw the line is the part that any sensible person will run away screaming from trying to answer that question.

HAMILTON: Pauly says federal lawmakers should draw the line, but they don't seem eager to do that. So it may be up to ACIP. And the meningococcal vaccine may be what forces the issue.

In April, the FDA approved a two-dose version for infants and toddlers. That means it will soon be possible to protect even very young children. But the cost could reach a billion dollars a year and ACIP will have to decide whether it's worth it.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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