Since the mid-20th century, widespread vaccination programmes and high vaccination rates have led both to a decline in numerous infectious diseases that used to cause death on a regular basis and to some of these being eradicated at a regional and even global level.
In the EU, however, vaccination rates have been decreasing considerably for years. This is jeopardising the medical achievements of previous decades. Diseases such as measles, that had rarely occurred in Europe for decades, have once again become a problem.
The measles infection rate trebled compared to the previous year to more than 15,000 cases. There have even been 50 deaths as a result of measles since early 2016. This development is concerning.
Ultimately, vaccination is one of the most important and effective preventative measures we have in medicine. It protects against infectious diseases that could cause death or serious health consequences including lifelong disability. They are also the only effective measure against viral infections, as viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics.
Since vaccination prevents or decreases the spread of infectious diseases, it not only has an effect on those that have been vaccinated but also those that have not. However, this is only true if the majority of people have been vaccinated, and this is not guaranteed. Our modern vaccines and safe; undesirable side effects are very rare.
A vaccine is only approved if tests have proven that it is both effective and well tolerated. Manufacturers must provide evidence for this through extensive clinical tests. This scientific evidence is then checked at EU level under the direction of the European Medicines Agency.
There is therefore no sensible reason to forego vaccinations or even to consciously refuse them. Nevertheless, vaccination sceptics continue to disseminate targeted misinformation. This is more than just irresponsible. And yet this debate is nothing new.
When the smallpox vaccination was introduced as compulsory in my home country of Germany in 1874, a debate raged and critics even founded newspapers to find a voice for their arguments.
In our modern information society, misinformation can be disseminated even faster. MEPs received many emails from those that are opposed to vaccination before the vote on the vaccination resolution.
The worst outcome is when parents begin to doubt vaccines because of this misinformation and choose not to have their children vaccinated, in order to protect them from allegedly nefarious side effects. This is grievous bodily harm - these children are rendered entirely defenceless against the most serious of infections.
There is no scientifically-based justification for the assertions of those that are against vaccination. We need to explain this to people. We need to reinforce the fact of how important vaccination is and the serious consequences of failing to get vaccinated.
Simply because infections such as polio and diphtheria no longer occur does not mean they have been eradicated around the world. The absence of these serious diseases in the EU is rather the result of a comprehensive, decades-long vaccination programme. We need to remind our citizens of that.
Declining vaccination rates bring with them the risk of new epidemics. This is particularly true given the increasing numbers of people coming to Europe from all parts of the world. We have to assume that many of these people have not been vaccinated, or insufficiently so, and that they could bring harmful pathogens with them from their home country.
This is why it is necessary to check immigrants’ vaccination status upon their arrival in the EU, and inoculate them as needed. This requires a common, coordinated Europe-wide strategy. We need targeted, EU-wide information campaigns. Medical staff in particular must be better trained on how to advise their patients properly.
Parents have a particular responsibility and must be targeted and informed. Those who refuse important vaccinations for their child are not just risking the life of their o¬ spring, they are also risking the lives of others.
Of course, we cannot solve the problem at a European level alone. For a start, member states and their various health systems need to ensure that all of their citizens have the necessary vaccination protection, regardless of their income and their social status.
The European Commission also has a role to play. We need a European action plan with specific measures to counteract EU citizens’ increasing vaccination fatigue. A European platform for the exchange of experience and best practice will help achieve high vaccination rates throughout the Union.