Vaccination is Europe's greatest public health asset
Falling immunisation rates across the EU require common action, writes Xavier Prats Monné.
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Vaccination is one of the most powerful and cost-effective public health measures developed in the 20th century. Before vaccines existed, many children would die or be crippled for life.
Vaccination has led to the eradication of smallpox, and has prevented countless deaths from diseases such as measles, diphtheria and meningitis.
Every year, immunisation programmes prevent 2.7 million people worldwide from contracting measles, and protect around two million people from seasonal flu in Europe alone.
Vaccination also protects society as a whole. However, this requires ‘herd immunity’ (a 95 per cent coverage rate in the case of measles), which is vital to protect vulnerable people such as newborns, and those with a weakened immune system.
Despite their outstanding track record, several EU and neighbouring countries currently face unprecedented outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases due to insufficient vaccination coverage rates. This is caused, in part, by misconceptions surrounding vaccination. Measles cases tripled in the EU between 2016 and 2017; in the past two years, 50 people have died due to measles and two from diphtheria.
It is no wonder Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker referred to this situation as “unacceptable” in his 2017 State of the Union speech. He subsequently pledged to support national efforts and launch a new EU initiative to increase vaccination rates.
These figures make it clear that we cannot be complacent and take vaccination for granted. It is not only a question of parents refusing the measles-mumps- rubella (MMR) jab.
A number of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases have been linked to health professionals. In its recent risk assessment of measles transmission, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control raised the alarm over the frequency of measles cases among healthcare workers.
Seasonal flu vaccination coverage rates also remain significantly below the 75 per cent target for older age groups, and as a result, around 40,000 people in Europe die from complications of seasonal flu every year.
Misconceptions about vaccination are a contributing factor in falling coverage rates. People are no longer sufficiently aware of the vital role vaccination plays in saving lives; their focus is increasingly turning to fear of possible side effects.
Misinformation by vaccine deniers and the rapid spread of fake news through online media is clearly a factor, but we cannot just dismiss vaccine hesitancy as simply a question of ignorance or gullibility. People have legitimate questions and concerns.
We must acknowledge that there is a lack of reliable and trustworthy information about the dangers of vaccine preventable diseases, vaccine safety and the benefits to society of herd immunity. We must take steps to remedy this.
One of our goals should be to address the concerns of those who seek to better understand immunisation for themselves and their families.
This will require efforts at both Commission and member state level, with the support of our partners in the health and education sectors. As there are country-specific reasons for vaccine hesitancy, EU countries should prioritise national communication activities to increase trust in vaccination.
The Commission should support these efforts by launching a web portal in all EU languages with transparent evidence on vaccines benefit and safety including tracking vaccination myths.
Healthcare workers are particularly critical to the debate, as they are considered to be the most trusted source of vaccine-related information for patients. It is therefore vital to address knowledge gaps in healthcare workers and ensure that the science behind vaccination is covered in the curricula of medical school across Europe and that education continues after graduation. Both the Commission and member states, with the cooperation of higher education institutions and stakeholders, have a role to play in this respect.
Misconceptions around vaccines are not our only common challenge. Other factors that play a role in immunisation gaps include hurdles in access to vaccines, vaccine shortages, divergent vaccination schedules between EU countries, and challenges relating to research and development for new and existing vaccines. These common challenges require a common solution.
Given that infectious diseases are not confined by national borders, and that one member state’s immunisation weakness puts the health and security of citizens at risk across the EU, cooperating in this area is in all our interests.
Although vaccination programmes are the responsibility of individual EU countries, the added value of acting together at EU level is indisputable. Common EU action and more coordinated approaches, including pooling our skillset in the research, healthcare and education sectors, will help us maximise our impact, and ensure sustainable, equitable and effective vaccination programmes in all EU member states.
Delivering on President Juncker’s commitment, the Commission will present a proposal for a Council recommendation on stronger EU cooperation against vaccine-preventable diseases later this month, outlining how the Commission, EU countries, and our partners can work together to address common challenges.
Vaccination is a public health asset that none of us can a¬fford to take for granted. As we set course to strengthen EU cooperation on vaccination, we count on the commitment of member states, regions, parents, and all our partners in the health, education and research sectors.
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