Three million lives are saved every year thanks to vaccination, but due to increasing vaccine hesitancy and disinformation, restoring public trust in vaccines is crucial, reports Lorna Hutchinson from the first ever Global Vaccination Summit.
It is unacceptable that in the twenty-first century, children are dying of diseases that should no longer exist in Europe.” This was the stark opening message of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the first ever Global Vaccination Summit, organised under the joint auspices of the European Commission and World Health Organization (WHO).
“It is thanks to vaccination that we eliminated smallpox almost 40 years ago, but since then, and in spite of scientific progress, vaccination has not allowed us to eradicate other preventable diseases.”
Juncker cited the example of measles, for which a political commitment was made in 2012 to eliminate the disease in at least five of the six WHO regions before 2020.
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“It is now 2019, and the number of measles cases continues to rise. Globally, almost three times as many cases of measles have been reported in the first six months of this year compared to 2018.”
“In Europe, the number of fatalities linked to measles has increased six-fold between 2016 and 2018, and these cases are mainly related to unvaccinated populations.”
“Why? Because of the number of Europeans who are vaccine hesitant; 38 percent of them believe that vaccines cause the diseases they are supposed to be protecting against. So, while in certain parts of the world, human beings are dying due to a lack of vaccines, here in Europe, people are risking their own lives as well as other peoples by refusing them.”
“Some people don’t play the prevention game and prefer to play with fire. This scepticism partly originates from disinformation campaigns that try to undermine vaccines and cite pharmaceutical industry profit as the only motive for vaccination campaigns.”
The high-level Summit, which took place in Brussels on 12 September, gathered policymakers, campaigners and scientific experts as well as representatives from social media and internet platforms, to hammer home the message that vaccines are safe, they save lives, and that mistrust and misinformation must not prevail.
Panel discussions were interspersed with real life accounts of vaccination, including a video address from Irish cervical cancer sufferer Laura Brennan, who sadly passed away earlier this year.
“Vaccine misinformation can be as contagious and as dangerous as the diseases it helps to spread” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
The audience was left visibly moved by Laura’s video, which highlighted the dangers of not vaccinating against human papillomavirus (HPV) the infection responsible for cervical cancer and other diseases.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, pointed out in his address that vaccines are one of the most powerful innovations in the history of medicine.
“Smallpox is no more thanks to vaccines, polio has been pushed to the brink of eradication, thanks to vaccines, once-feared diseases like diphtheria, tetanus, measles and meningitis are now easily prevented, thanks to vaccines. And new vaccines are being developed to protect people against more diseases.”
Vaccination is a cornerstone of public health, he said, explaining that the new Ebola vaccine is playing a critical role in controlling the spread of the current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“The world’s first malaria vaccine is now being piloted in three African countries. New vaccines against tuberculosis are showing promise, and researchers around the world are continuing the quest for a vaccine against HIV.”
“Vaccines are also a frontline defence against antimicrobial resistance,” he said, adding “When we talk about the right to health, we are talking about the right to vaccines.”
The Director-General went on to say that “there is no health for all without vaccines for all,” but underlined that the benefits of vaccines extend well beyond health.
“They’re the foundation for individuals, families, communities and nations to flourish. Vaccines help to interrupt the cycle that keeps children trapped in poverty. They enable children to grow and to learn. They mean not only lives saved, but lives lived.”
He delivered the encouraging news to the packed audience that most children born around the world today will be vaccinated, adding that every year, more than 116 million children are protected from deadly diseases in routine vaccination programmes.
“Globally, over 1 in 10 children born today do not receive basic vaccines. Every year, 13 million children miss out altogether – they never receive a single vaccine dose” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
“This is a tremendous global achievement. But these hard-fought gains are not enough. They can be easily lost. Because of low coverage nationally or in pockets within countries, measles outbreaks are spreading rapidly around the world. Just last month, four European countries – including three EU Member States – lost their measles-free status. This is serious.”
He said that in some countries, vaccine hesitancy contributes to these outbreaks. “Vaccine misinformation can be as contagious and as dangerous as the diseases it helps to spread.”
“Falsehoods about vaccination have spread in developed countries in Europe, the US, Canada and others, but also in less developed countries like Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, jeopardising the fight against polio, Ebola and other vaccine-preventable diseases.”
Adhanom Ghebreyesus ended his address by pointing out that although vaccine hesitancy is a serious issue, it is not the main reason children miss out on vaccines; it’s because they simply cannot access vaccines.
“Globally, more than one in ten children born today do not receive even basic vaccines. Every year, 13 million children miss out altogether – they never receive a single vaccine dose.”
“Most unvaccinated children live in countries affected by poverty, conflict, migration and fragile health systems. But in all countries of all income levels, it’s the poorest and most disadvantaged children who are most likely to miss out.”
A four-pronged approach was needed to address this, he said.
First, political commitment at the highest levels is essential for making progress.
“In certain parts of the world, human beings are dying due to a lack of vaccines; here in Europe, people are risking their own lives as well as other peoples’ by refusing them” Jean-Claude Juncker
Second, innovation: “There are still many diseases for which we need new vaccines, or better vaccines.
Third, partnership: “Expanding access to vaccines is not a job just for governments, or parents, or health workers, or UN agencies, but all of us. Everyone here has a role to play – WHO, the EU, UNICEF, GAVI (the Vaccine Alliance) and all other partners. We all have comparative advantages to bring to the table.”
Fourth, investment: “Vaccines cost money. Programmes cost money. Surveillance costs money. Research costs money. Investments in each element of a strong immunisation programme must be protected and grown if we are to reach the goals countries have set for themselves and the world.”
Closing the Summit, European Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis paid homage to the “inspiring and tragic stories” of the people whose lives have been profoundly touched by the issue of vaccination.
“I am emotional and honestly, these stories speak to me, they go straight to my heart. Citing Nelson Mandela, Andriukaitis said, “Life or death for a young child too often depends on whether he is born in a country where vaccines are available or not.”
He added, “We must look at today as a watershed moment in the effort against vaccine-preventable diseases.”
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