Poll: Nearly half of Europeans think vaccines ‘can often produce severe side effects’

Contracting measles is more common today than 2 years ago and the number of people who got the disease tripled, said Jyrki Katainen. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

85% of EU citizens believe vaccines are an effective way of preventing diseases, but almost half of them think vaccines “can often produce severe side-effects,” according to a new Eurobarometer survey.

The issue of vaccination is still clouded by confusion and misconceptions. Eurobarometer , the EU’s public opinion polling organisation, conducted the first ever face-to-face survey on the topic, with around 28,000 citizens from the EU’s 28 member states.

According to the survey, a relative majority of Europeans (48%) believe that “vaccines can often produce severe side effects,” compared to 40% who believe they don’t. In Cyprus, 65% of people believe vaccines can be harmful, the highest proportion in the EU. It is followed by Croatia (64%), Malta (62%), Slovenia and France (both at 60%).

Vaccines, like every other pharmaceutical substance, entail a certain probability of side effects, said the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). However, they are usually mild and more severe reactions are very rare, said the EU health prevention body.

Almost four out of 10 respondents also think vaccines can cause the very disease against which they protect, while 31% believe they can weaken the immune system.

“The more we talk about what is true and what is a misperception on vaccination, the better chance we have to get the right messages,” the Vice-President of the Commission temporarily in charge of health issues, Jyrki Katainen, said at a press briefing.

The Commission said it will host a Global Vaccination Summit in partnership with the World Health Organisation (WHO) in September, confirming an announcement made by the EU’s health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis in an interview with EURACTIV last April.

Andriukaitis: I like criticism from anti-vaxxers, it means I'm doing my job

Before taking a temporary unpaid leave from his position in Brussels, EU health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis looked back over his mandate in an exclusive interview with EURACTIV.com, highlighting his fight to promote vaccination and tackle resistance to antibiotics.

Voluntary cooperation

The EU has no competence in vaccination and it is up to member states to adopt national strategies to increase coverage or to decide whether vaccination should be mandatory or not.

“We don’t want to interfere in this debate. Both voluntary or compulsory systems can function, there is not only one solution,” said Katainen who replaces Andriukaitis during the presidential election campaign in Lithuania.

In April 2018, the Commission proposed a recommendation on strengthening voluntary cooperation of all stakeholders against vaccine-preventable diseases, which was adopted as a recommendation by the Council.

“20 member states so far joined a platform based on voluntary cooperation. It is quite a big number for this kind of cooperation,” said an EU official, adding that several joints actions are on-going and that the platform is open to other countries that want to apply.

According to Katainen, the Council’s recommendation was taken quite seriously and the topic of vaccination should remain high on the EU agenda, also during the European Parliament elections.

Debating mandatory or voluntary vaccination is ‘absolutely useless’, says EU health chief

Medical experts, not politicians, should decide whether vaccination should be mandatory or not, EU health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis told reporters on Thursday (21 November), adding that the only relevant objective is to reach maximum coverage.

Asked by EURACTIV what other tools the Commission has at its disposal to encourage member states on vaccination, Katainen answer that voluntary cooperation is the only one they can use.

“But don’t undermine the value of it,” he added, saying cooperation “could provide valid solution and encourage member states behaviour”.

“Sometimes problems are quite practical, rather than ideological, and evaluating the best performances and spreading best practices could be very helpful,” Katainen said.

Trust in healthcare professionals

Despite this, attitudes towards vaccines and vaccination are positive. 85% believe that vaccines can be effective in preventing infectious diseases.

This is consistent with the State of vaccine confidence in the EU 2018 report published on 24 October, which highlighted how the majority of EU citizens “strongly or tend to agree” that vaccines are important (90.0%), safe (82.8%) and effective (87.8%).

Commission report: EU public trust in vaccines largely positive but gaps remain

Public perception towards vaccines is largely positive across the EU, with Portugal marking the highest scores, a new report has found. However, mistrust still exists in some member states and four of them are among the top ten vaccine-sceptical countries in the world.

Around half of EU citizens have been vaccinated in the last five years. More than one-third of those who did not get vaccinated did so because they did not see the need.

Also worth noting is that Europeans do trust doctors on vaccination: The main reason for getting vaccinated is the recommendation by a doctor, the Eurobarometer survey found.

79% of EU citizens also tend to consult and trust a healthcare professional to get information about vaccinations. Social media in that respect is not considered a trustworthy source of information by most, which could be one of the most positive findings of the survey given the high amount of disinformation available on social media.

The Commission also stressed that its work to increase vaccine coverage and to fight against vaccine disinformation is far from finished. Only four EU countries reached 95% of coverage: Hungary, Portugal, Slovakia and Sweden.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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