Vaccines Are Awesome!
Bob Runs the Numbers, Episode 4
I’ve got some opinions about inoculations. Skip this episode if the controversial* opinion “vaccines are pretty awesome!” isn’t your cup o’ tea.
* not controversial
A Quick History Of Smallpox
It’s tough to get a well-defined actuarial cost for smallpox. After all, it wiped out 90% of a hemisphere’s population once! But let’s see if we’ve got some numbers we can throw at the problem.
Smallpox killed 400,000 people per year in Europe during a century when Europe’s population grew from 100,000,000 to 200,000,000. Taking the midpoint results in:
400,000 / 150,000,000 * 80 * 40
or about eight years of lifespan taken from each European in the eighteenth century!
There is another estimate that 10% of Swedish infants died from the disease. That works out to an actuarial cost of
0.1 * 80
– also a cost of eight years that smallpox stole from every Swede before a smallpox vaccine existed.
It’s probably fair to say that the smallpox vaccine has given the actuarial gift of nearly an extra decade of lifespan to every living human on the planet.
Vaccines Have Lessened The Horrors Of Other Diseases
Smallpox may be the most terrible disease that vaccination has eradicated, but there are plenty of other painful and deadly diseases that, in a pre-vaccination era, would have kept people up at night worrying about becoming infected or, even worse for a parent, their kids becoming infected. Americans nowadays have the luxury of accessible vaccines to avoid polio, measles, chickenpox, HPV, tetanus, and lessen the severity and likelihood of other diseases like influenza.
In 2018 we think about the flu as an innocuous annoyance.
We would have thought differently a century ago when the 1918 influenza epidemic killed 675,000 Americans and 4% of the world’s population!
0.04 * 40
... or costing, actuarially, one and a half years per person alive during the epidemic.
Even today, the flu vaccine saves around 4,000 American lives annually.
4,000 / 300,000,000 * 80 * 40 * 365
That means that – today, in the twenty-first century – our lifespans are each, actuarially speaking, two weeks longer thanks to the flu vaccine.
This episode was originally written and published in 2018, before the coronavirus pandemic.
As I type, we’re a few months away from this pandemic’s two-year anniversary, and about 800,000 Americans have died from Covid-19. Best estimates are that the currently-available vaccines are well over 90% effective in preventing death.
Estimating steady-state cost of Covid
I don’t know what a steady-state expected death rate is for an endemic novel coronavirus, but if we squint really hard at 800,000-plus over two years and round down a little, we could squishily assume that universal vaccinations could avoid 300,000 deaths per year.
(And that’s assuming that the same amount of coronavirus would be floating around in a universally-vaccinated population, which is, of course, ridiculous.)
(And if there are better ways to estimate, I’m eager to hear them; and anyone is welcome to run their own numbers. Meanwhile I’m trying to make the math easy.)
300,000 / 300,000,000 * 80 * 20 * 365
Or a year and a half added to the actuarially-expected lifespan of every man, woman, and child living in the US.
Things That Happened Today
It was really cool spending today not suffering from polio. Thanks, vaccines!
Out of my three kids, zero caught smallpox. Thanks, vaccines!
It was pretty neat not having the measles today. Thanks, vaccines!
I tasted my meals today because I don’t have Covid. Thanks, vaccines!
It’s pretty cool that none of my kids lost their hearing due to mumps. Thanks, vaccines!
Forty thousand American lives were saved over the last decade thanks to the flu vaccine. Thanks, vaccines!
I’m not even sure what rubella is
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ since nobody in my family caught it. Thanks, vaccines!
Vaccine science has been one of the purest awe-inspiring victories in the history of medicine.
(Actuarial assumptions are explained in more detail in Appendix 2.)