A free childhood vaccine program begun in the US more than two decades ago has reduced racial and ethnic disparities in vaccination rates, according to a new study first reported by Reuters. However, affluent and white youth are still more likely to get shots than their low-income and non-white peers, the study found. 

Vaccines For Children (VFC) is a federal government initiative started in 1994 to provide vaccines at no cost to children who might not otherwise be vaccinated because of inability to pay, according to Reuters.

The study compared vaccination rates in 1995 to 1997, just after the VFC program went into effect, with the rates in 2011 to 2013. Overall results included:

  • Vaccination against polio climbed from about 89% to roughly 93%.
  • Measles, mumps and rubella vaccination (MMR) rose from 90% to 92%.
  • Use of the vaccine for diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis – often called DTaP – increased from 80% to 83%.

Despite overall gains in vaccination rates, racial, ethnic and economic disparities persist, lead study author Brendan Walsh of City University London (UK) told Reuters.

  • Among high-income white children, 91% got at least four doses of the DTaP vaccine by the end of the study, compared with just 78% of low-income white kids.
  • For black children, DTaP vaccination rates were 89% for high-income kids and 76% of low-income kids at the end of the study.
  • With Hispanic kids, DTaP vaccination rates at the end of the study were 90% for high-income children and 81% for low-income children.

Over its first two decades, the VFC program prevented 322 million illnesses, helped avoid 732,000 deaths and saved nearly $1.4 trillion in direct healthcare costs and other costs to society, according to the CDC.