World Health Assembly 2019: Health leaders confront impacts of global vaccine barriers

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Science Speaks is in Geneva this week covering the 72nd session of the World Health Assembly, May 20-28.

GENEVA – Expert panelists from the World  Health Organization, United States, other nations and civil society agreed in a discussion here today that misinformation, easily spread through social media, continues to cause significant confusion among parents about the safety and benefits of vaccines. At least 480 websites are currently dedicated to actively spread misinformation about vaccines, Dr. Peter Hotez, pediatric infectious diseases physician at Baylor University, noted.

They spoke at “Promoting Vaccine Confidence: Embracing Global Immunization Efforts to Protect the Health of All Generations,”  hosted by 15 governments, including the United States.

Ironically, speakers said, the success of vaccination has led many people to complacency; they have seen few instances of vaccine preventable illnesses. Many, also, don’t understand how severe some vaccine preventable diseases can be. But, Dr. Hotez warned, vaccine preventable illnesses return when vaccination rates decline. “Public health victories achieved through vaccination are fragile,” he said.

Vaccine hesitancy was historically less of a concern in developing countries where people routinely saw the devastation caused by vaccine preventable diseases. But as the success of vaccines reaches more countries, vaccine hesitancy reaches those countries as well, speakers said. Just as there are no national barriers to the spread of infectious diseases, Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of  the GAVI Alliance, noted, there are no national barriers to the spread of misinformation.

Speakers also noted that in addition to reducing immunization rates and giving pathogens a foothold in the community, misinformation about vaccines can also  breed mistrust of governments that are promoting vaccination.  Such mistrust can destabilize governments with major global ramifications.

Public education must establish the status of vaccination as a social norm, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam said, ensuring that public discourse is not dominated by vaccine opponents. Dr. Tam has convened public health leaders and parents to collaborate on this effort. Governments, including Canada and the U.S. are also working with social media companies to remove vaccine misinformation and promote scientific literacy.

Technical assistance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to support vaccination campaigns in low-income countries and National Institutes of Health-supported research on new vaccines for diseases that include Ebola and HIV were among ongoing U.S. investments aimed at boosting vaccination coverage globally highlighted by  U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar.

A national vaccination campaign in Brazil, aimed in part at addressing low innoculation rates among people fleeing Venezuela amidst the nation’s ongoing struggles, was an effort touted by Brazilian Minister of Health Dr. Luiz Henrique Mendetta. Brazil is also building a new vaccine production center to help ensure a stable supply of vaccines.

Participants agreed that health workers must also be empowered to be vaccine champions with their patients and their communities. While efforts to combat vaccine hesitancy were front and center, many also noted that additional barriers to vaccination exist and must be confronted. Vaccine production and distribution systems must be scaled up to meet global demand, and health systems in all countries must be strengthened  to ensure universal vaccine delivery.

WHO, in turn, is developing a new global vaccine action plan, to be presented at the 2020 WHA, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of WHO, announced.

“WHO is working to  ensure  vaccines reach more people in more countries than ever before. Vaccination is a right and a shared responsibility.”

Amanda Jezek is senior vice president at the Infectious Diseases Society of America, which produces this blog.

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