Seasonal influenza is a major cause of mortality worldwide. Routine immunization of children has the potential to reduce this mortality through both direct and indirect protection, but has not been adopted by any low- or middle-income countries. We developed a framework to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of influenza vaccination policies in developing countries and used it to consider annual vaccination of school- and preschool-aged children with either trivalent inactivated influenza vaccine (TIV) or trivalent live-attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV) in Thailand. We also compared these approaches with a policy of expanding TIV coverage in the elderly.
Methods and Findings
We developed an age-structured model to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of eight vaccination policies parameterized using country-level data from Thailand. For policies using LAIV, we considered five different age groups of children to vaccinate. We adopted a Bayesian evidence-synthesis framework, expressing uncertainty in parameters through probability distributions derived by fitting the model to prospectively collected laboratory-confirmed influenza data from 2005-2009, by meta-analysis of clinical trial data, and by using prior probability distributions derived from literature review and elicitation of expert opinion. We performed sensitivity analyses using alternative assumptions about prior immunity, contact patterns between age groups, the proportion of infections that are symptomatic, cost per unit vaccine, and vaccine effectiveness. Vaccination of children with LAIV was found to be highly cost-effective, with incremental cost-effectiveness ratios between about 2,000 and 5,000 international dollars per disability-adjusted life year averted, and was consistently preferred to TIV-based policies. These findings were robust to extensive sensitivity analyses. The optimal age group to vaccinate with LAIV, however, was sensitive both to the willingness to pay for health benefits and to assumptions about contact patterns between age groups.
Vaccinating school-aged children with LAIV is likely to be cost-effective in Thailand in the short term, though the long-term consequences of such a policy cannot be reliably predicted given current knowledge of influenza epidemiology and immunology. Our work provides a coherent framework that can be used for similar analyses in other low- and middle-income countries.
Ben Cooper and colleagues use an age-structured model to estimate optimal cost-effectiveness of flu vaccination among Thai children aged 2 to 17.
Every year, millions of people catch influenza, a viral disease of the airways. Most infected individuals recover quickly, but elderly people, the very young, and chronically ill individuals are at high risk of developing serious complications such as pneumonia; seasonal influenza kills about half a million people annually. Small but frequent changes in the influenza virus mean that an immune response produced one year by exposure to the virus provides only partial protection against influenza the next year. Annual immunization with a vaccine that contains killed or live-attenuated (weakened) influenza viruses of the major circulating strains can reduce a person’s chance of catching influenza. Consequently, many countries run seasonal influenza vaccination programs that target elderly people and other people at high risk of influenza complications, and people who care for these individuals.
Why Was This Study Done?
As well as reducing the vaccinated person’s risk of infection, influenza vaccination protects unvaccinated members of the population by reducing the chances of influenza spreading. Because children make a disproportionately large contribution to the transmission of influenza, vaccination of children might therefore provide greater benefits to the whole population than vaccination of elderly people, particularly when vaccination uptake among the elderly is low. Thus, many high-income countries now recommend annual influenza vaccination of children with a trivalent live-attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV; a trivalent vaccine contains three viruses), which is sprayed into the nose. However, to date no low- or middle-income countries have evaluated this policy. Here, the researchers develop a mathematical model (framework) to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of annual vaccination of children with LAIV or trivalent inactivated influenza vaccine (TIV) in Thailand. A cost-effectiveness analysis evaluates whether a medical intervention is good value for money by comparing the health outcomes and costs associated with the introduction of the intervention with the health outcomes and costs of the existing standard of care. Thailand, a middle-income country, offers everyone over 65 years old free seasonal influenza vaccination with TIV, but vaccine coverage in this age group is low (10%).
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers developed a modeling framework that contained six connected components including a transmission model that incorporated infectious contacts within and between different age groups, a health outcome model that calculated the disability-adjusted life years (DALYs, a measure of the overall disease burden) averted by specific vaccination policies, and a cost model that calculated the costs to the population of each policy. They used this framework and data from Thailand to calculate the cost-effectiveness of six childhood vaccination policies in Thailand (one with TIV and five with LAIV that targeted children of different ages) against a baseline policy of 10% TIV coverage in the elderly; they also investigated the cost-effectiveness of increasing vaccination in the elderly to 66%. All seven vaccination policies tested reduced influenza cases and deaths compared to the baseline policy, but the LAIV-based polices were consistently better than the TIV-based policies; the smallest reductions were seen when TIV coverage in elderly people was increased to 66%. All seven policies were highly cost-effective according to the World Health Organization’s threshold for cost-effectiveness. That is, the cost per DALY averted by each policy compared to the baseline policy (the incremental cost-effectiveness ratio) was less than Thailand’s gross domestic product per capita (the total economic output of a country divided by the number of people in the country).
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that seasonal influenza vaccination of children with LAIV is likely to represent good value for money in Thailand and, potentially, in other middle- and low-income countries in the short term. The long-term consequences of annual influenza vaccination of children in Thailand cannot be reliably predicted, however, because of limitations in our current understanding of influenza immunity in populations. Moreover, the accuracy of these findings is limited by the assumptions built into the modeling framework, including the vaccine costs and efficacy that were used to run the model, which were estimated from limited data. Importantly, however, these findings support proposals for large-scale community-based controlled trials of policies to vaccinate children against influenza in low- and middle-income countries. Indeed, based on these findings, Thailand is planning to evaluate school-based seasonal influenza vaccination in a few provinces in 2016 before considering a nationwide program of seasonal influenza vaccination of children.
This list of resources contains links that can be accessed when viewing the PDF on a device or via the online version of the article at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001829.
The UK National Health Service Choices website provides information for patients about seasonal influenza, about influenza vaccination, and about influenza vaccination in children
The World Health Organization provides information on seasonal influenza (in several languages) and on influenza vaccines
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also provides information for patients and health professionals on all aspects of seasonal influenza, including information about vaccination, about children, influenza, and vaccination, and about herd immunity; its website contains a short video about personal experiences of influenza
Flu.gov, a US government website, provides access to information on seasonal influenza and vaccination
MedlinePlus has links to further information about influenza and about vaccination (in English and Spanish)
The Thai National Influenza Center monitors influenza activity throughout Thailand