UK: Falling vaccination rates pose a global health risk

30 Dec, 2018
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For years, measles in Europe has been in decline, thanks largely to successful vaccination campaigns. But in the first 10 months of this year the number of confirmed cases topped 54,000 — more than twice the total for all of 2017 and a 20-year high, according to the World Health Organization. The vaccine has not suddenly stopped working. Instead, vaccination rates are dropping — in large part because populist politicians have wrapped “ anti-vax” scepticism into their narrative of suspicion and hostility towards institutions and multinational companies, amplifying the message through social media. The health implications are profound. Anti-vaccination campaigns defy decades of evidence of the indisputable global benefits of immunisation. Vaccines have eradicated or brought under control seven major human diseases — smallpox, diphtheria, tetanus, yellow fever, whooping cough, polio, and measles. Deaths from polio worldwide have fallen 99 per cent since 1988 and more than 16m people have been saved from paralysis, according to the WHO. Eliminating smallpox has alone saved an estimated 40m lives. Scepticism is growing not just in Europe. Reluctance to vaccinate children against measles, mumps and rubella is mounting in the US, where the number of “philosophical” exemptions granted has risen by two-thirds in 10 years. Some fall in vaccination rates is a consequence of the effectiveness of immunisation. As diseases are eliminated, the risk of the disease falls to the point where even mild side-effects become more serious than the infection itself. This can lead to a fall in coverage — and the disease re-emerging It is, however, no coincidence that anti-vax scepticism has grown alongside the rise of populist parties and social networks, manipulated by mischief-making external actors including Russia. Libertarians are now making common cause with the left. Both warn of being duped by the allegedly venal interests of “big pharma”. Italy, where a populist-nationalist coalition is in power, accounted for nearly a quarter of European measles cases last year, second only to Romania, where vaccination rates began falling around 2014. Beppo Grillo, founder of the Five Star movement, is a vaccine sceptic. Matteo Salvini, interior minister and leader of the other coalition party, the rightwing League, has called immunisations dangerous. In France, Marine Le Pen, National Rally party leader, responded to a government decision to make 11 vaccines mandatory in the face of a low MMR immunisation rate by endorsing people’s right to say “no”. In the US, President Donald Trump linked MMR vaccinations to autism during his campaign — a connection the international medical establishment long ago debunked. He invited to an inauguration ball Andrew Wakefield, the British-born gastroenterologist who authored a long-discredited study on MMR and autism. European governments have been slow to understand the risks to their citizens’ public and political health. Research has shown Moscow was fast to identify vaccination as a deeply polarising topic — ideal fodder for trolls and bots which have been disseminating pro- and anti-vaccination messages online to sow confusion and discord. If future generations are to be spared the scourges of their ancestors, public health officials, scientists and doctors must sharpen communications. They need to learn to navigate the awkward terrain of social media, to engage with critics and give more weight to credible scientific evidence. Public health urgently needs better defences; the common good needs better advocates.

This entry was posted on Sunday, December 30th, 2018 at 10:14 am and is filed under Latest News.

Literature Literature archive

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Owen Dyer 2019 BMJ 364:l739 doi: 10.1136/bmj.l739
Lee TH, McGlynn EA, Safran DG. 2019 JAMA 321(6):539–540. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.19186

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