Decades worth of scientific research has proven and validated the efficacy of vaccines in protecting populations from diseases and eradicating certain diseases altogether. Worryingly, however, there has been a decline in trust on the part of the global public in vaccines over the past few years.
A recent survey created by British medical charity, Wellcome, and conducted by Gallup World Poll, revealed that that populations in higher income countries made up the bulk of those who expressed scepticism about vaccines. This could lead to a crisis in global public health and needs to be tackled as soon as possible, especially because vaccines are vital in combating the spread of diseases that could eventually become epidemics if not dealt with appropriately.
The results, which included the responses of more than 140,000 people across 144 countries, were not surprising to Wellcome’s head of public engagement, Imran Khan.
“I think we expected that general trend, because where we have seen that skepticism and concern about vaccines, that tends to be in more developed countries,” he said.
He admitted however, that the numbers were startling even to him.
The results of the survey come at a time where measles outbreaks have seen a sharp rise globally. More worryingly, European nations, which are more affluent and have better access to preventative healthcare such as vaccines, have been affected disproportionately by these outbreaks.
Concern about Vaccine Safety
The survey, which was conducted to reveal global attitudes towards the fields of health, science and technology, was particularly useful in revealing a burgeoning crisis of faith in Europe about vaccines.
While 79% of people around the world think that vaccines are safe for use, less than 60% of Europeans believe the same to be true. In comparison 75% of those in the UK believe in the safety of vaccines, but that number could decline in the coming years if this trend continues.
This decline in trust is not limited to Europe, but is more of a global phenomenon. While developing countries such as Bangladesh and India have generally maintained high trust in the safety of vaccines, populations in other nations such as Russia and Japan show only a 44% and 34% trust in vaccines.
Aside from the Ukrainians, the French have proved to be the most sceptical lot in Europe. Just 47% of the population acknowledge that vaccines are safe and a staggering 33% outright disagree with the idea.
The point of concern here, is not merely the global decline in trust of vaccines and the phenomena of higher-income countries being the least trusting lot, but the consequences of this loss in trust. What will happen if this trend continues and trust in vaccines continues decreasing not only in affluent countries, but globally?
Importance of Vaccines
Amidst all the furore about the decline in trust in vaccines, some of you may be wondering why exactly this matter is so significant and why it needs to be confronted immediately. Preventative medicine, namely vaccines, are sometimes the sole barrier between the world population and hundreds of infectious and debilitating diseases such as smallpox and measles.
Smallpox, for example, was officially eradicated in 1979 only because of a global vaccination programme initiated by the World Health Organisation. The disease, which induces high fever and fatigue, was fatal in up to 30% of those affected by it and was therefore a formidable foe to the well-being of the world population.
This was a key incident in proving how crucial vaccines are in preventing diseases outbreaks and their importance in preventing fatalities caused by these epidemics.
Next in line is polio, which the WHO is combating through the use of vaccines once again. Through the use of these vaccines, incidences of polio around the world have been reduced by 99%. Out of the three strains of poliovirus, one has been completely eradicated and the other has not been detected since 2012.
More commonly occurring diseases such as measles can also be combated effectively through the use of vaccines. Two doses of the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine are approximately 97% effectively in preventing infection by the disease.
These vaccines have also proven to be safe when administered to healthy and non-contraindicated individuals.
Consequences of Decline in Trust in Vaccines
Wellcome’s Imran Khan, who also spearheaded the global survey, thinks that the decline in trust in vaccines could cause devastating consequences down the line.
“There are increasingly populations and entire countries around the world where confidence in vaccines is dropping and uptake is dropping. That does pose a huge public health risk,” he said.
Indeed, negative sentiment about vaccines, which has manifested in the notorious anti-vax movement, has the potential to trigger outbreaks of diseases that are currently under wraps and cause fatalities in populations that were previously well protected from these diseases.
In fact, it is no coincidence that a statement released by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in April stated that almost 170 million children missed out on the first dose of the measles vaccine. This comes despite the decision by many countries, including the UK, to make the measles vaccine compulsory as part of a childhood or adult immunisation schedule.
Just in the first three months of 2019, more than 110,000 of cases of measles have been reported across the globe – a probable consequence of the large number of children missing out on the vaccine.
Moreover, France, which has a population that is highly sceptical about the safety of vaccines, is one of the ten countries in the world that has been most affected by outbreaks of measles over the period of a year.
This points to a credible link between a population’s trust in vaccines and outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease occurring in that population – put simply, the more faith that people have in the safety and efficacy of a vaccine, the more likely they are to receive that vaccine and the less likely it is for them as well as their countrymen to contract the disease.
Why is Scepticism about Vaccines Growing?
The decline in trust of vaccines cannot be brushed off as a passing trend or a problem that will be solved with time. It is necessary that it is tackled immediately and firmly and that the doubts and fears of the global population about vaccines are addressed. This is especially important because the full impact of a loss in trust in vaccines will only be felt about five years after global trust declines.
After all, a now discredited paper that was published about a possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism in 1998 by Andrew Wakefield is making waves even today. The spread of false or unproven information is dangerous because it sometimes irrevocably changes the attitudes of the public towards vaccines.
Five years after the paper was published, MMR vaccine coverage dropped to its lowest – it took a trying fifteen years after that for coverage to return to the rate it had been at before the publishing of the paper.
Even though researchers have proven that there is no known link between the MMR vaccine and autism, there are still individuals who are concerned about the safety of administering such a vaccine to their children. These are largely the groups of individuals who go on to propagate the anti-vax movement, which then results in pockets of populations remaining unvaccinated.
If individuals from these pockets contract measles, they will not only endanger their own health, they may also cause outbreaks of the diseases which could affect an entire population. It is important to note that most of those who contract measles are unvaccinated individuals or those who have had incomplete MMR vaccinations.
Director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Dr Heidi Larson, thinks that the full effect of a scepticism towards vaccines will only be seen in a few years, making the problem even more pressing.
“Vaccine hesitancy has the potential, at least in some places, to really hinder the very real progress the world has made in controlling vaccine-preventable diseases,” she said.
“Any resurgence we see in these diseases are an unacceptable step backwards.”
Dr Larson also cites social media as a reason for the spread of doubt about vaccines. Unverified facts and misinformation spread on platforms with a wide reach can play a huge part in reducing people’s trust in vaccines.
The exaggeration of the side effects of vaccines as well as the probability of side effects affecting those who have been vaccinated are similarly damaging to the credibility of vaccines.
Combating Scepticism about Vaccines
Many factors, including the spread of false or unsubstantiated information about the safety of vaccines, can negatively affect public opinion about vaccine safety and efficacy.
For example, unsubstantiated reports by the Japanese media that the HPV vaccine caused side effects such as seizures, tremors and walking difficulties caused widespread panic and mistrust in the vaccine.
Despite researchers confirming that there was no substantiated link between these symptoms and the vaccine, the adverse reactions vaccinations committee in Japan decided to stop proactively recommending the vaccine to target audiences. The result was that only 5% of the target audience in Japan chose to opt for the vaccine, which leaves many women at risk of certain strains of HPV.
In order to combat this, awareness must be raised about the proven safety of vaccines and figures must be used to substantiate any such claims made. Education about vaccines is the only way to show populations that vaccines are crucial in maintaining public health globally.
Experts as well as travel health professionals have to combat the spread of false information by educating the public about the benefits of vaccines and the low risk that they pose to the average individual.
Moreover, the risk of not being vaccinated often heavily outweighs the risk of receiving a particular vaccine, and this must be conveyed to the public by health professionals as well. Preventative medicine such as vaccines should be promoted to the public and clear explanations must be given on why these vaccines are necessary.
On the part of the public, they must also take proactive steps to dig deeper into any claims made on social media platforms or by the media about vaccines and not just take them at face value.
Looking into research papers about vaccines, websites of international and local health authorities such as Public Health England (PHE) and the WHO and consulting travel health professionals or health professionals are some ways in which members of the general public can prevent the spread of false or unsubstantiated news about vaccines.
If you are living in an area where there is a risk of contracting a vaccine-preventable disease, if you have not received any routine childhood immunisations or if you’re travelling to a region that poses a risk of transmission of a vaccine-preventable disease, make sure that you visit the National Health Service or National Travel Health Network and Centre’s website for pertinent information.
Book an appointment with us for a full travel health consultation and receive any necessary vaccines before your trip overseas so that you can protect yourself from common travel diseases. Any safety concerns or doubts about the efficacy of vaccines can also be addressed to us and we will endeavour to clarify them.