On January 25th of this year, the state of Washington declared a state of emergency because of a measles outbreak. Following this, and previously to this, vaccinations have been a large part of the local and national conversation. I have to start this post by saying that I am a biased source in the sense that I believe everyone should get vaccinated, but I am going to try to look at this topic from purely an economic standpoint. In order for vaccinations to be effective and prevent an outbreak, the vaccination rate needs to be about 90-95%. Unfortunately, vaccination rates in the United States have been decreasing in recent years as the popularity of the anti-vaccine movement has spread, so outbreaks are becoming more and more plausible. In response to the measles outbreak, The Washington House Healthcare and Wellness Committee approved a bill to remove parents’ ability to claim a philosophical or personal exemption from vaccines. Currently, in the state of Washington, 6.7% of kindergartners are exempt from vaccines for non-medical reasons.
Looking at the economics of this we can split it up into two parts: opportunity cost and externalities. For people who believe in vaccines, the opportunity cost of not receiving one is extremely high because that leaves you more susceptible to the diseases the vaccines are protecting against. For anti-vaccine people the opportunity cost of not receiving a vaccine is significantly lower due to their belief that vaccinations cause autism among other things. When talking about the externalities of vaccines, we can look at the statistic given earlier: in order for vaccines to be effective enough to prevent an outbreak, the vaccination rate needs to be about 90-95%. This implies that there will always be some people who don’t receive vaccines for either medical or religious reasons, but the fact that so many people are protected by vaccines protects the people who did not. This implies a positive externality of vaccines. That positive externality is that the more people who are vaccinated, the more protected everyone is from disease. However, this means that when people don’t receive vaccines there is a negative externality because it puts everyone else more at risk, hence the presence of outbreaks this year.