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Peter O'Donnell is a freelance journalist who specializes in European health affairs and is based in Brussels, Belgium.
At the end of April, European Immunization Week will take place celebrating the achievements of immunization in healthcare. However, contemporary sentiments of skepticism threaten to dampen the event.
European Immunization Week, which is taking place at the end of April, should be a celebration of what immunization has achieved in healthcare. But – o tempora, o mores! – it has turned into more of a lament. Not about what immunization has done, but about the threat that much contemporary sentiment represents to immunization's achievements.
The tone was set by a joint statement from two of Europe's leading health officials right at the start of the week. European Commissioner for Health, Vytenis Andriukaitis, and WHO Regional Director for Europe, Zsuzsanna Jakab, felt it necessary to issue an urgent call for common sense to reassert itself and for the growing chorus of vaccine deniers to be rejected.
"We must not take the benefits for granted," they said.
But the benefits are not merely being taken for granted. They are being questioned as never before, by suspect researchers, misguided politicians and convinced conspiracy theorists, ranging from the long-disgraced UK doctor Andrew Wakefield to the President of the United States. And in a world given over dangerously to social-media sensationalism, systematic distrust of science, and blind acceptance of fake news, vaccine deniers are gaining ground.
In Brussels, the latest demonstration of this phenomenon came last month from Green MEP Michèle Rivasi, an inveterate critic of the drug industry, who insisted on showing a self-justifying documentary by Wakefield even after her political group refused to let her use the European Parliament for the event. Her highly dubious rationale was that stifling debate about vaccine safety will only reinforce people's suspicions about their merit. But her underlying motives were suggested by a press release she put out at the time. She suggested that drug firms see "a golden opportunity" in vaccines, and they are pushing them unnecessarily onto the market as "a new jackpot" at a time when they have run out of real therapeutic innovation.
Decreasing public trust in immunization poses a serious threat that cannot be ignored, said the EU health chiefs in their statement. The consequence of the rejection of vaccination is a surge in infectious disease – including a threefold rise in measles cases in Italy. 17 people have died and 3,400 have contracted measles since an outbreak started in Romania last September. "It is distressing that some public figures irresponsibly use their position to contribute to distrust of vaccines."
French doctors are so incensed by the trend towards vaccine denial that they are urging the government to make vaccination a legally binding obligation for parents. Australia is considering a ban on childcare if parents fail to vaccinate.
The minor degree of risk has to be understood in the context of the protection of the herd. The evidence in favor of immunization is overwhelming, Andriukaitis and Jakab point out. In the last 60 years, it has saved more children's lives than any other medical intervention. It eradicated smallpox by 1980. And measles caused an estimated 2.6 million deaths each year, until widespread vaccination was put in place in the same year.
The credibility of immunization is at stake – and with it, the credibility of the scientific approach. Last weekend's march for science showed that right around the world, science is under suspicion, and that scientists around the world are starting to fight back. This isn't just about vaccines. It matters for everyone involved in medicines development.
Peter O’Donnell is a freelance journalist who specializes in European health affairs and is based in Brussels, Belgium.