Vaccines mistrust a “global crisis” says Wellcome report

A wide-ranging survey involving 140,000 people in 140 countries has revealed a worryingly high level of concern about the safety of vaccines, with scepticism highest in the developed world.

While the report by the Wellcome Trust suggests that more than three-quarters of the world’s population agree that vaccines are safe and effective, that confidence dips sharply in high-income regions like Europe and North America.

All told, roughly three quarters of people polled said they felt vaccines were safe in Northern Europe, but that proportion plummeted to 59% in Western Europe and 50% in Eastern Europe. In France, one in three people disagreed that vaccines are safe, the highest percentage for any country worldwide, with high levels of scepticism also seen in Gabon, Togo, Russia and Switzerland.

In contrast, low-income regions tend to have much more confidence in immunisation, with highs of 95% of people in South Asia and 92% in Eastern Africa.

The low confidence in some areas of the world is critically important, given that the World Health Organization says that reluctance to receive vaccines – known as vaccine hesitancy – is one of the top 10 threats to public health as once-conquered diseases such as measles stage a comeback.

There has been a dramatic increase in measles cases in almost every region in the world, and UNICEF warned in March 2019 that cases were surging to “alarmingly high levels”.

Cases in France leaped from 518 in 2017 to more than 2,900 last year for example, and there were massive outbreaks involving tens of thousands of people in Ukraine, Madagascar, Philippines, Brazil and Yemen in 2018.

“People’s decision not to vaccinate – for whatever reason – is not just a personal choice of risk-taking; it also poses a risk to others,” says the Trust.

“Being vaccinated protects an individual from being infected themselves, and if enough people are vaccinated, it stops the disease from being spread to the larger population.”

It’s the loss of herd immunity that is allowing diseases like measles and meningococcal disease to regain a foothold.

In the case of France, researchers said there seems to have been an increase in hesitancy in the wake of a controversial influenza pandemic vaccination campaign in 2009, during which the WHO was alleged to have been influenced by pharmaceutical companies.

Meanwhile the vaccine conspiracy theories go back around two decades, when The Lancet published a now discredited study linking vaccination with autism, although that belief still seems to persist in some quarters.

Last year the French government expanded the number of compulsory vaccinations in an attempt to tackle the vaccine hesitancy issue and rebuild confidence in immunisation safety, while Italy has passed a law banning unvaccinated children from attending school.

Overall, 92% of parents polled said their children had received at least one vaccination, but 6%  – equivalent to 188 million parents globally – said  their kids were unvaccinated.

“It is reassuring that almost all parents worldwide are vaccinating their children. However, there are pockets of lower confidence in vaccines across the world and we cannot afford to be complacent,” commented Charlie Weller, head of vaccines at Wellcome.

“To ensure society gets the full benefit of vaccines, we need to make sure that people have confidence in both the safety and effectiveness of vaccines and understand more about the complex reasons why this is not always the case.”

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