Vaccines: A Healthy Investment

Alumnus Johannes Ahrendts Explains Why Vaccines and Immunization Offer Global Benefits Beyond the Obvious

Why should the world invest in vaccines? At first blush, the answer to that question might seem obvious: vaccines help save children’s lives and protect people’s health. Less evident, perhaps, is that vaccines and immunization boost the health of nations, too—a cost-effective shot in the arm that improves living standards and underpins economic growth.

“Spend one dollar today to immunize a child in the developing world, and tomorrow you can expect to see a 16 dollar return on your investment,” explains Johannes Ahrendts (Berlin, 2009–2014), head of strategy at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Vaccinate a child before her second birthday, and she’s on track to lead a healthier, longer life. Being healthier, she reduces the burden of care on her parents, freeing them up to be more productive. More productive parents earn more money while their healthy child stays in school to complete her education. As the economic outlook of the girl’s family—and other similar families—improves, her community becomes more stable and self-sufficient. Healthier communities foster healthier nations that, in turn, produce more healthy children—a virtuous circle, if you will.

Gavi is an international organization committed to increasing equitable access to 12 new and underused vaccines for children born into the world’s poorest countries. Viewed as individual markets, these countries had been previously unattractive to vaccine manufacturers. Prices had been excessively high, with many vaccines simply unavailable.

“Gavi bundles demand from these countries, making it more attractive for the pharma industry to provide supplies. As such, vaccine prices have dropped significantly, and, importantly, there is now greater supply security,” says Johannes.

The impact has been extraordinary. Since its creation in 2000, Gavi has helped prevent more than nine million deaths; assisted in the immunization of close to 640 million children; and strengthened health systems and immunization services across almost 70 countries.

“More children in the world’s poorest countries now have access to the critical vaccines they need to survive,” Johannes says. “These are kids who might otherwise die of the types of disease—measles, meningitis, yellow fever, pneumonia, cholera, and such—that we in the developed world need no longer fear.”

Johannes is, undoubtedly, a big-picture type of guy.

Having studied medicine and worked as a neurologist, he soon came to feel, he says, that his personal, day-to-day influence as a doctor was limited in scope. “I could help just one patient at a time. I wanted my work to have a wider impact; I wanted to help make the health care world a better place more broadly.”

The way to scale: management consulting.

“I joined BCG because I knew the firm was doing a lot of work in the health care sector, and I was confident that management consulting would help me understand the dynamics of that sector, to get a feel for how it all works and how all the parts—patients, providers, payers, and vendors—fit together. I knew management consulting would also shape my ability to lead. Combined, this experience would prepare me to improve the health and lives of many.

“Medical doctors and consultants are alike in that they have an innate need to dig deep to get to the root cause of a problem and then find a cure or solution. As a management consultant, I built immensely on what I learned as a medical doctor and feel my work now has greater leverage.”

Indeed it does.

In his job today, Johannes and his team are responsible for the design, facilitation, and support of Gavi’s four strategic goals:

  • Accelerate equitable uptake and coverage of vaccines
  • Increase effectiveness and efficiency of immunization delivery as an integrated part of strengthened health systems
  • Improve sustainability of national immunization programs
  • Shape markets for vaccines and other immunization products.

When fully implemented, this five-year strategy will have seen developing countries immunize an additional 300 million children, saving five to six million lives along the way.

In 2016 alone, Gavi—with the help of the governments the organization supports—immunized 62 million children, helping avert about 1.2 million deaths.

Encouragingly, many partner governments are now taking ownership by providing cofinancing for vaccines. Indeed, by early 2017, nine countries—Bhutan, Guyana, Honduras, Indonesia, Kiribati, Moldova, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, and Ukraine—had started to fully self-finance all vaccines introduced with Gavi support.

“More and more, governments are coming to realize that an investment in immunization is an investment in their economy,” Johannes says. “They understand the long-term benefits and value of vaccines. They’re seeing the positive economic impact. They’re reaping that 16:1 return on their investment.”

Looking forward, Johannes fully expects Gavi to build upon its achievements. “Our impact continues to increase year after year, supporting additional critical vaccines and the health systems needed to deliver them, reaching ever more children.”

He says he can easily imagine a day when Gavi’s impact reaches beyond the immunization space. “We have created a very successful platform for shaping markets. I can envision this model expanding to other essential health services and commodities. I would be pleased to see our model used as a blueprint for other funding organizations as they think about shaping markets and sustainability.”

He cautions, however, that there is still a lot of work to be done.

“We can be proud that we’ve helped reach about 80% of the children in the poorest countries in the world. The challenge now is to accelerate reaching the remaining 20%, what we call the fifth child, that child who lives in the world’s remote villages and urban slums, where health care systems are weak to nonexistent.

“In the meantime, I am energized by the fact that we are having a measurable positive impact in the countries we support,” he concludes. “I continue to trust in and support Gavi’s mission to improve children’s lives and prevent unnecessary deaths.”