Vaccines are victim of their own success, global health expert says

Seth Berkley, CEO GAVI Alliance, [EPA/BOTMA]

One of the reasons behind the decline in vaccine confidence is that people have become complacent, as diseases that have killed millions of people are no longer here due to the success of vaccination, an epidemiologist told EURACTIV.

Speaking on the sidelines of 2019 European Development Days, the chief executive of the GAVI global vaccine alliance Dr Seth Berkley, said reaching the maximum level of vaccination coverage used to be the primary health challenge in the past.

“But the challenge today is that people choose not to vaccinate their children,” he said, adding that this trend was, ironically, caused by the fact that vaccines have eradicated the most lethal diseases.

“For example, when my wife used to be an attending physician at the major teaching hospital in New York City, she’s never seen a case of measles, tetanus, or pertussis,” he said.

This high efficiency in tackling infectious diseases led to a form of complacency, giving rise to the spread of various rumours and concerns, according to the expert.

“Today, we have amplifiers like social media that allow groups to come together and spread misinformation as well as information,” Berkley said.

Developing countries showed different challenges for increasing the coverage, such as massive urbanisation, refugee situations or sometimes isolation. “People there would walk for hours and wait for their jab because they know what these diseases can do.”

The Global Monitor Report recently released by the Wellcome Trust, a partner organisation of GAVI, found that around a fifth of people in Europe either disagree or are unsure of whether vaccines are safe.

The lowest vaccines confidence levels are in Western Europe, where 22% of people consider vaccines unsafe, while one French national out of three disagrees that vaccines are safe.

Nationalism is useless

According to country reports, 82,596 people in 47 of 53 WHO European region countries contracted measles last year, with 72 people dying from the virus.

“And this is extraordinary for a vaccine that has been around for 60 years, it’s cheap, completely safe and has high efficacy,” Berkely said.

The EU has committed to making Europe a measles-free continent by 2030 but he cautioned that “that’s not going to happen”.

Although vaccination is still a competence of member states, Berkley praised the EU for its willingness to keep the topic high on the political agenda, as the European Commission will host a Global Vaccination Summit in partnership with the World Health Organisation (WHO) in September.

Berkley also appreciated the European countries for the way they behaved at the G7 Health Minister summit held on 16-17 May 2019 in Paris under the French presidency. “They discussed as a collective group how important this topic is and how it’s a challenge across all the countries.”

According to the epidemiologist, nationalism cannot give solutions in case of contagious or pandemic. “You can’t put up a wall and stop infectious diseases.”

In a world where almost one billion people move outside of their countries of origin per year, the idea of being safe in my country or community it’s just not true anymore, he said.

“I often have dinner in Nairobi, breakfast in London, and lunch in New York, within the incubation period for any of these diseases,” he highlighted.

Fighting disinformation

On the internet, there is a lot of misinformation that can drive one in the wrong direction, but there are a few things that are important to fight misinformation over vaccination, stressed the expert.

“But none alone is good enough,” he warned. “So obviously, the most important thing, in general, is a belief in science, and that’s particularly important for vaccines.”

“But it goes beyond that because what you really need to do is you need to have a supportive environment,” he explained.

According to Berkley, it’s important to identify the key leaders in the community, like scientists, politicians, local religious leaders or local community groups, in order to have a grassroots movement in favour of vaccines.

The last critical piece is, however, not just removing the bad information, but having the positive one shared.

“When somebody goes on the internet to search for information, they should not be directed to known disinformation,” he pointed out.

“If I direct someone to bully another one and the latter commit suicide, I could be charged with manslaughter. But in the case somebody spreads misinformation on vaccines and kill somebody, nothing happens,” he said.

“We’ve pushed quite hard for social media companies to direct people to reliable information and to remove misinformation,” he concluded.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe

Want to know what's going on in the EU Capitals daily? Subscribe now to our new 9am newsletter.