Vaccine hesitancy is listed by the World Health Organisation as one of 10 threats to global health this year. And it’s not difficult to see why.
A sense of mistrust seems to underpin the growing concerns being expressed on the MMR vaccine in India, for instance, or the outright “anti-vaxx” campaigns seen overseas. And however minimal or localised these incidents may be, health authorities are worried that it could negatively impact genuine public health and immunisation campaigns.
Against this backdrop, doctors and public health experts are calling for focussed efforts to address parent and community fears with scientific evidence, and tackle vaccine half-truths fanned by social media.
Last week, Facebook said it would step-in to curb misinformation on vaccines. The move followed anti-vaxx campaigners using social media to spread the fear of vaccines and the risk of links to autism. Earlier last week, an international study had said that children who had been given the MMR vaccine to protect against measles, mumps and rubella were not at a greater risk of getting autism.
What is vaccine hesitancy?
The WHO defines ‘vaccine hesitancy’ as “the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines and it threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases.” Vaccines are effective preventive tools in a government’s public health kit and it is accepted as among the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease.
Calling out vaccine hesitancy as public health threat, the WHO pointed out that measles had seen a 30 per cent increase in cases globally. “The reasons for this rise are complex and not all of these cases are due to vaccine hesitancy. However, some countries that were close to eliminating the disease have seen a resurgence,” the multilateral agency noted.
Closer home, progressive states like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu too have witnessed instances of vaccine hesitancy. Parents have expressed reservations on the MMR vaccine and the measles-rubella vaccines, respectively.
While it is right for parents to have a healthy scepticism, they should equip themselves with information from the right sources including doctors, Health Ministry representatives or authentic sources like the WHO website and not gather information from social media.
Feeding these concerns are unresolved controversies like the one involving polio vaccines and the emergence of Type-2 polio in Uttar Pradesh last year. Or the tragic incident in Hyderabad last week, where a child died and more than 20 others were reportedly hospitalised following treatment given after a vaccine was administered. Though reports suggest that the death was not vaccine related, it will add to the anxiety around a routine vaccination programme.
Dr Naveen Thacker, Executive Director of the International Paediatric Association, has been campaigning against vaccine-related fake news that gets amplified on social media. He calls for training of doctors to listen and address the fears of parents with scientific evidence. “Trust is critical,” Dr Thacker said, referring to “trust in the vaccine, trust in Government, trust in the system and trust in the manufacturer.”
And this trust is hit if a crisis is badly managed, conspiracy theories emerge involving products or when information is in line with peoples’ personal beliefs. There is a “confirmation bias” where negative information reinforces personal belief, Dr Thacker explained. “And these do not just contribute to an anti-vaccine sentiment but can adversely impact a public health programme as well,” he cautioned.
Public health experts point to India’s success in tackling polio through an intensive immunisation programme. The WHO expects 2019 to see transmission of wild polio virus being stopped in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well. Less than 30 cases were reported last year in both countries, the WHO says, casting its might behind their vaccination programme.
Parents should raise questions on vaccines, its necessity and safety, said an expert unwilling to be named. But it is up to the Government and doctors to keep this communication with parents ongoing, transparent and scientific so that benefits to the child and larger community are not lost in misinformation.