Measles is making a comeback. As of May 17, there were over 800 reported cases of the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s more than in any of the last four years.
This uptick is dispiriting but shouldn’t be surprising. More and more people are deciding not to get their shots. In the past decade, the number of nonmedical vaccine exemptions for philosophical reasons has increased in 12 of the 18 states that allow them.
A surge of misinformation about vaccines — including the thoroughly discredited theory linking them to autism — deserves much of the blame. But even today, millions of people struggle to access vaccines. That’s a tragedy, given how much good they can do at relatively low cost.
Freeing medical professionals like pharmacists to administer them would make vaccines more accessible and thereby boost vaccination rates — to the benefit of everyone’s health.
Vaccines are among the great triumphs of modern medicine. The numbers are staggering. Between 1963 and 2015, vaccines prevented nearly 200 million cases of infectious disease in the United States and saved 450,000 lives.
Many people don’t remember life in a world where they had to worry about the likes of polio, measles, mumps, or rubella. Consequently, the urgency to vaccinate has fallen. In 2011, 0.9 percent of children under the age of two had never received a vaccine. That figure had jumped to 1.3 percent by 2015.
In the 2017-2018 school year, the percentage of kindergarteners exempted from vaccines increased for the third year in a row. The median exemption rate now stands at 2.2 percent.
Many adults forgo vaccines, too. Fewer than two in three seniors has gotten a pneumococcal vaccine to prevent pneumonia. Many skip their flu shots. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that influenza and pneumonia are among the leading causes of death for Americans.
These subpar vaccination rates are in part a function of how difficult it can be to get shots. Doctor’s appointments can be hard to come by. In large metropolitan areas, new patients can wait nearly a month to get an appointment with a family medicine physician.
Even if they’re able to get into the doctor’s office, their physician may not have the vaccine they need on hand. As of 2012, less than one in three doctors stocked all 11 adult vaccines recommended for routine use by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, largely because doing so would be too expensive.
Some states also restrict the ability of non-doctors — primarily pharmacists — to administer vaccines. They may require a patient to first get a prescription from a doctor or only authorize pharmacists to deliver a limited number of shots to people of specific ages. Just 17 states allow pharmacists to provide at least some vaccines without a prescription or protocol.
Those regulatory requirements aren’t just inconvenient for patients. They raise the cost of administering vaccines. Relaxing them, therefore, would boost vaccination rates and drive down costs.
There’s ample evidence to suggest as much. A pilot study in Washington State gave eight community pharmacies access to patient vaccination history and the ability to act on the data. Vaccination rates climbed 41 percent over six months.
One 2014 analysis revealed that, compared to physician offices, average direct medical costs for shingles, influenza, and pneumococcal vaccines were much lower at pharmacies.
Then there’s the convenience factor. There are far more pharmacies than doctor’s offices, and they tend to have much longer hours.
Vaccines save lives. We should be doing everything we can to boost vaccination rates. That of course includes addressing the fear and misinformation that’s fueled far too many outbreaks of preventable diseases. But market-friendly reforms that make vaccines more accessible would do a world of good, too.