Once a vaccine is licensed and introduced in the population, post-licensure studies are required to measure vaccine effectiveness and impact of vaccination programmes on the population at large. However, confusion still prevails around these concepts, making it difficult to discern which effects are measured in such studies and how their findings should be interpreted. We review from the public health evaluation perspective the effects of vaccine-related exposures, describe the methods used to measure them and their assumptions. We distinguish effects due to exposure to individual vaccination from those due to exposure to a vaccination programme, as the latter depends on vaccine coverage, other population factors and includes indirect effects as well. Vaccine (direct) effectiveness is estimated by comparing vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals exposed to the same vaccination programme. The impact of a vaccination programme, defined here as the population prevented fraction when exposure is the programme, is measured by comparing populations with and without a vaccination programme, most commonly the same population before and after vaccination. These designs are based on a number of assumptions for valid inference. In particular, they assume that vaccinees and non-vaccinees do not differ in terms of susceptibility and exposure to the disease or in ascertainment of vaccination and disease status. In pre and post-vaccination design, the population is assumed to have similar baseline transmission, case detection and reporting, risk factors and medical practices in both periods. These principles are frequently violated in post-licensure studies. Potential confounding and biases must be minimized in study design and analyses, or taken into account during result interpretation. It is also essential to define which exposure is evaluated (individual vaccination or vaccination programme) and which effect is measured. This may help decision-makers clarify which type of study is needed and how to interpret the results.
Keywords: Epidemiology; Impact; Observational studies; Vaccination; Vaccine effectiveness.
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