This is a plain English summary of an original research article. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) at the time of publication.
New research show that the total cost of the 2012-13 measles outbreak in Merseyside (£4.4 million) was more than twenty times the cost of the vaccinations that could have prevented it (£182,909).
The cost incorporated for the first time estimates of lost employment from having measles or looking after someone with it, and accounted for 44% (£2 million) of the total.
Other costs included treatment of patients and public health costs, such as tracing and vaccinating people in contact with measles cases.
Measles vaccinations work, but need to reach 95% or more of a group to prevent measles outbreaks in the population. If the proportion of vaccinated people in an area falls below this level, immunity falls and an outbreak may occur.
This study supports investment in measles vaccination and targeting areas that are under vaccinated as a good use of resources.
Why was this study needed?
Measles is a highly infectious viral disease that mainly affects children under five. Most people recover in around seven to 10 days, but rarely it can cause serious brain or lung infections, or death.
Liverpool has a population of about 78,000 aged less than 16 years and over 65% of the population live in socioeconomically deprived areas. Uptake of vaccination in the UK fell from 92% in 1996 to 80% in 2003. Outbreaks in recent years have mainly occurred in areas of the country or specific groups in which uptake of vaccine was low. Prior to the 2012 outbreak, uptake by the age of five years of the second dose of the vaccine (normally offered from the age of three years and four months to five years) had been around 85%.
Vaccines offered to all children in the UK prevent measles. Public health services aim to achieve 95% population immunity through vaccination, but some people refuse or otherwise do not access vaccination resulting in clusters of measles-susceptible individuals and outbreaks.
This study aimed to estimate the total societal cost of dealing with a measles outbreak in Merseyside (England) in 2012-13 relative to the cost of preventing it through achieving 95% vaccination coverage. Economic analyses had been done before on vaccination but those taking into account indirect and wider costs or the costs of an actual as opposed to potential outbreak are unusual.
What did this study do?
This economic modelling study combined a literature review and workshop to build a consensus picture of the costs involved in managing the measles outbreak in Merseyside.
This informed an assessment of the treatment cost to NHS hospital and GP services, public health control and containment, and societal productivity losses (see Definitions).
Costs were estimated for the first four month period and extrapolated to cover the whole outbreak period of 18 months.
There were 2,458 reported cases of measles in the Merseyside outbreak, of which 652 cases were confirmed and 1,808 were probable or possible (see Definitions).
The cost of preventing the outbreak included an extra 11,793 vaccinations over five years, the number thought necessary to achieve the desired public immunity coverage of 95%.
Some assumptions of costs are up for debate, but even if they contain small error, the overall conclusions are unlikely to change.
What did it find?
- Total cost of the outbreak was £4.4 million ranging from £3.9 to £5.2 million depending on the underlying assumptions used (sensitivity analysis).
- The £4.4 million comprised 15% NHS treatments costs (£0.7 million, range £0.6 to £0.7), 40% public health costs (£1.8 million, range £1.8 to £1.9) and 44%, the largest proportion, on societal productivity losses (£2.0 million, range £1.4 to £2.6 million)
- There were few cases affecting those with suppressed immunity, pregnant women or other vulnerable groups, and there were no serious complications or measles-related deaths. Had this not been the case, treatment costs would have been higher.
- The extra 11,793 vaccinations needed to protect 95% of the population from measles was £182,909, 4% of the total cost of the measles outbreak.
What does current guidance say on this issue?
To help identify possible outbreaks, medical practitioners are duty bound to notify their local council or health protection team of suspected measles cases.
Vaccination, treatment and public health responses during the outbreak were carried out in line with detailed Health Protection Agency measles guidelines from 2010. The Health Protection Agency has been superseded by Public Health England, who has published fact sheet-based summaries of the guidance.
What are the implications?
Investing in measles vaccination to achieve immunity coverage of 95% or more appears a very sensible use of resources, based on the experience in Merseyside.
The study authors reinforced the need to commission well-resourced, co-ordinated and robust vaccination programmes that consistently reach at least 95% of people in all communities of the population.
Immunising those children in areas where uptake is poor and developing programmes to maintain coverage can lead to additional costs, but from the societal point of view would deliver a good return on any investment.
Well-co-ordinated health service and public health responses in the event of an outbreak are also important to minimise the spread and the likelihood of severe complications.
Citation and Funding
Ghebrehewet S, Thorrington D, Farmer S, et al. The economic cost of measles: Healthcare, public health and societal costs of the 2012-13 outbreak in Merseyside, UK. Vaccine. 2016;34(15):1823-31.
The study was commissioned by Health Protection Agency (Public Health England predecessor organisation).
NHS Choices. Measles. London: Department of Health; last updated 2015.
NHS Choices. Measles outbreak: what to do. London: Department of Health; last updated 2015.
PHE. Measles: guidance, data and analysis. Health protection - collection.. London: Public Health England; 2014.
Vivancos R, Keenan A, Farmer S, et al. An ongoing large out-break of measles in Merseyside, England, January to June 2012. Euro Surveill. 2012;17(29). pii:20226.
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