Costs of an influenza epidemic: they’re big!

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Authors of academic papers display great skill in crafting their titles.  Yes, I’m being sarcastic, but when a paper with the title, “The Inclusive Cost of Pandemic Influenza Risk,” crosses my desk and I read what’s in it I gain a new appreciation for understatement and a lack of marketing effort.

The paper’s bottom line: “We use published figures to estimate expected income loss at $80 billion per year and hence the inclusive cost to be $570 billion per year or 0.7% of global income (range: 0.4-1.0%) (p. 2).”  Further, the costs would fall most heavily on low- and medium-income countries and the most vulnerable citizens of these countries.

So what?  How big is a loss of 0.7% of income compared to other risks?  The authors point out that “the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates the likely cost of global warming to fall in the range 0.2 to 2% of global income annually (p. 20).”

Thus the potential costs of a world-wide influenza epidemic are on the same order as those of climate change.  Yet, at the same time that governments are negotiating climate change agreements and companies are making contingency plans for the effects of climate change, much less is being done to prepare for a potential pandemic.  The authors address this in the same style as their title:

It remains for other efforts to assess the costs and probable impact of investments to reduce the likelihood or probable severity of a pandemic. These investments potentially range from R&D toward a universal flu vaccine through pre-investment in manufacturing capacity for (or stockpiling of) drugs and vaccines to implementing global programs to immunize humans, swine and birds against seasonal flu. Important investments along these lines are indeed being made. It is our sense, however, that given this paper’s cost estimates for pandemic risk the economic benefits of further investments are likely to substantially exceed their costs.

In plain language: we need to get going now on developing flu vaccines, building the capacity to produce the vaccine, and planning for public health offices to distribute the vaccine (not to mention deal with all the other effects of a pandemic.)

Yes, the benefits are likely to exceed the costs.  Let’s get cracking on this right away!