Vaccine mistrust promotes the return of diseases that have almost disappeared

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to numerous “anti-vax” demonstrations in many countries, especially in Europe. Vaccine mistrust is not new, but it is growing with immediate effects on the general state of health and on the fight against diseases that have almost disappeared.

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) considered this distrust of vaccination to be one of the 10 most significant threats to global health while vaccines are one of the greatest advances in public health.

A global decline in vaccination

Reluctance or refusal to get vaccinated despite the availability of vaccines threatens to undo progress made in the fight against vaccine-preventable diseases.

Vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways to prevent disease: it currently prevents 2 to 3 million deaths per year, and an additional 1.5 million may not occur if global vaccination coverage improves.

The reasons people choose not to get vaccinated are complex; an advisory group to the WHO has determined that excessive optimism (disease that one believes to be eradicated or from which one thinks one is protected), the difficulties of access to vaccines and the lack of confidence are the main reasons for the hesitation.

Return of measles

Cases of measles, for example, increased by 79% in the first two months of 2022 according to the last WHO and UNICEF report. The reasons for this increase are complex, and not all of these cases are due to vaccine hesitancy. However, some countries that were on the verge of eliminating the disease have seen a resurgence in cases.

Thus, in 2019, Albania, Greece, the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic, which had eliminated measles have seen the disease reappear.

Poor countries are also affected by a decline in vaccination, but for different reasons. According to UNICEF, 1 in 4 children is not vaccinated in Latin America. Before the pandemic, there was already a decline in vaccination coverage. A disruption of essential health services and fear of catching COVID-19 at a vaccination site have made the situation worse and left many children without even the most basic vaccines.

Following the pandemic, more than a third of countries (37%) reported experiencing disruptions or delays in their routine immunization campaigns. More than half of the 50 countries affected by these postponements are in Africa, exposing 228 million people to dangerous diseases.

A resurgence of diseases

The non-vaccination of children has significant direct consequences on the return of certain diseases.

Between 2015 and 2020, in the Latin America and the Caribbean region, the complete vaccination schedule against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DPT3) increased from 90% to 76%.

While only 5 cases of diphtheria were reported in the region in 2013, this figure rose to 900 in 2018. For measles, the number of cases rose from 500 cases to 23,000 over the same period.

In 2019, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Samoa and Ukraine were all affected by measles which led to the death of many children. WHO and UNICEF, in collaboration with the States concerned, had to deal with an epidemic of measles on three different continents which could have been prevented by vaccination.

Prevention and improvement of vaccination coverage

Different organizations work with countries and partners to achieve the goals of the Global Immunization Agenda 2030 and thus help to reduce by half the number of children who have not received any vaccine, to increase the use of new life-saving vaccines and to provide fairer and more equitable access to vaccination.

“To save lives, we must ensure that everyone can benefit from vaccines, which means investing in vaccination and in the quality health care that everyone has a right to,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of WHO.

Implementing complete vaccination coverage for all, without distinction, will also make it possible to advance in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and in particular Objectives 3 (good health and well-being), 5 (gender equality) et 10 (reduced inequalities).

To be vaccinated is not only to protect oneself but above all to protect others.

More information

Vaccination outside COVID: an overall decline due to the pandemic

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