Getting vaccinated is an uncomfortable experience, but it remains one of the most important medical processes to go through, not only for yourself but for those around you as well. For some time, an anti-vaccination faction has been gaining popularity in the US, leading to more cases of nearly eradicated diseases (such as measles.) In a freakonomics podcast earlier this month on the flu vaccine, they explore why people opt not to get vaccinated, and why this is a bigger problem than it seems. Even beyond the public health realm, an increasing population who are unvaccinated against diseases is actually damaging to the community as a whole.
In the podcast, they explore why people who are otherwise unopposed to getting vaccinated occasionally avoid doing so. The first and foremost reason cited was what’s called ‘the availability heuristic.’ This term essentially explains one way that the mind takes shortcuts to be able to predict future events. While this tool is likely an important one, it also leads to misprocessing of information, and particularly causes people to bias perceived probabilities of events happening based on what has happened recently rather than over a longer period. Along with this, comes an equal bias that a stronger consequence from recent memory is more salient and likely than something less severe. What all this means in the world of vaccines is that since people don’t hear about disease outbreaks that vaccines prevent, they are likely to underestimate the probability that they themselves will get infected. On top of this, since peoples’ memories are biased towards strong consequences, unless a serious epidemic with a highly lethal disease people will underestimate the true benefit of vaccination since when vaccines work, nothing happens. Both of these will lead to individuals underestimating the benefit of vaccines, and will lead to a decreased demand for these goods for any individual.
Even if everyone were acting in a manner that reflected real world probabilities, vaccine consumption in the US would still be below its socially optimal level. Vaccination is one classic example of what economists call a ‘positive’ externality. Externalities are effects from any given transaction that impact someone who isn’t directly involved in that transaction. Smoking a cigarette in a crowded building, for instance, has an extra impact on an outside party (the other people) who were not involved in the initial purchase of the cigarettes. Some may not care about the smoke, some may even enjoy it, but others may dislike it, and being around the smoker will cause some sort of change in that individual’s overall happiness. In the case of vaccines, there is a concept of ‘herd immunity.’ This is the collective resistance to diseases by individuals within a population, and refers to the fact that if any given member of the group is somehow immune to disease, the others in the group are less likely to be exposed to the disease in the first place. Every person who gets vaccinated is not only protecting themselves, but also protecting those around them from being exposed to preventable diseases. Getting vaccinated gives a societal benefit outside of the person who is getting the immunity by transferring some degree of collective immunity onto those who come in contact around them.
Getting sick is not only unpleasant, but outbreaks of illnesses that keep people at home lower productivity overall and can cause inefficiencies within the labor market. Even more severe, even common illnesses like the flu lead to thousands of deaths within vulnerable populations in the US. While going to the doctor to get a needle stuck in your arm may not be pleasant (as is argued by Dave Barry), it’s wildly effective. So get your flu-shot everyone.
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