Europe fears new epidemics, cost of vaccines


This article is part of our special report Future of European Healthcare.

SPECIAL REPORT / Measles and rubella are “raging” throughout Europe and public fears fuelled by internet-driven campaigns and lack of funding are worsening the situation, delegates at the Gastein Health Forum were told.

“At the moment, for example, measles and rubella are once again raging in Europe,” Austrian MEP Karin Kadenbach told a workshop on vaccination at the policymakers forum on Friday (5 October).

“The World Health Organization has as a result had to put back its goal of conquering these diseases by 2010 to 2015," Kadenbach said. "The reason for this is a falling vaccination rate, leading to an increase in infections.”

Measles viruses could be prevented from circulating if 95% of the population were inoculated, she said. But vaccination rates fall far short in the 53 countries of the WHO European region to stamp out this extremely contagious disease. Recent studies show that between 2010 and 2011 the number of measles cases in the EU has risen by a factor of four.

Obstacles include vaccine fatigue, scepticism and costs

Kadenbach said that the memory of Europe’s success in eliminating polio and smallpox “is unfortunately fading”. Vaccination has become a victim of its own success, she argued, claiming that its importance was increasingly disregarded, misleading people into believing that jabs are no longer necessary.

Costs are also a factor in preventing many from getting vaccinated, as the example of flu vaccinations showed, she said. Countries which spent the least on subsidising seasonal flu vaccination also had the lowest coverage rates. Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland had the lowest coverage in Europe.

World Bank health expert Armin Fidler told delegates there is clear evidence that immunisations are among the most cost-effective public health interventions, but falling healthcare budgets are challenging vaccinations.

Developing countries are pioneering on vaccination drives

The World Bank expert argued that the issue of whether or not to pay for such medical interventions did not only apply to developing countries, which are often more pioneering in their approach.

“Even in many low-to-middle-income countries, those responsible for public budgets are not only prepared to waive contributions to immunisation: they literally pay people to take part in order to boost the vaccination rate.

In countries like Brazil, Mexico, and Turkey, some social services such as school fees are linked to vaccinations,” Fidler said, claiming such “conditional cash transfers” paid off, and should be encouraged elsewhere.

Internet fuels suspicions of vaccinations

Kadenbach called for a joint European initiative that brings in health experts and decision-makers, to give more political support for vaccination programmes. “Otherwise the risk to the WHO region was that highly-contagious diseases would recur, bringing in their wake suffering, disabilities, and death,” she said.

The internet is also proving to be a hindrance to vaccinations, a separate seminar on social media’s effect on vaccinations heard.

“There is not only a great deal of misinformation on vaccination circulating on the internet,opponents are also organising actual campaigns and are recklessly frightening parents into not having their children vaccinated,” John McConnell, editor of The Lancet Infectious Diseases said.

He claimed that evidence-based facts on vaccines or successful vaccination programmes have less chance of being taken seriously as a result. “The aggressiveness of the vaccination sceptics drowns out everything else,” McConnell said.

Medical community should fight back on-line

A soon-to-be-published study done in the United States suggests that attempts to use social media to actively explain certain vaccinations, and appeals for vaccinations to be undertaken, could have a counterproductive effect, because they meet with such resistance from the anti-vaccination lobby, according to McConnell.

Although social media have been shown to be problematic in public education on vaccination, Marc Sprenger, director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, told the forum that the internet cannot be left to the vaccination sceptics.

“We must position ourselves more strongly and in a more professional way in social networks. It is especially important to strengthen public trust in vaccination by involving independent experts and testimonials,” Sprenger told the forum.  

The eurozone debt crisis has forced some governments to drastically cut their public health budgets in an effort to contain deficits.

EU Health Commissioner John Dalli has warned about neglecting public health in times of austerity, saying the economic crisis should not turn into a health crisis.

The Gastein Health Forum meeting in Austria, Europe's largest gathering of health policymakers, is discussing a number of issues affecting the future of the sector, in the context of the financial crisis.

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