Nearly half of Europeans incorrectly believe that vaccines often produce serious side-effects, according to an EU-wide poll that comes amid a global rise in cases of measles.
It follows reports that confidence in vaccines has declined in some parts of Europe as anti-vaccine groups gain traction in the political sphere.
Italy’s populist coalition last year suspended a requirement for parents to prove their children were vaccinated before starting nursery or pre-school.
Some 48% of those surveyed agreed with the false statement that vaccines often produce serious side-effects, the European Commission’s Special Eurobarometer on Vaccines discovered, compared to 41% who correctly said they don’t.
In more than half of EU countries, the incorrect figure was at least 50 percent, including in France and the UK.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that "serious adverse events occur rarely (on the order of one per thousands to one per millions of doses), and some are so rare that risk cannot be accurately assessed."
As many as one in every five Italians, Austrians and Romanians believes vaccines are unimportant for wider social protection against diseases.
And across the EU, just over one third of those who do not bother with vaccines say it is because they do not see a need for it.
Major public health threat
Respondents aged between 15 and 24 are less likely than those in older age groups to say that measles (28%, compared with 34%-41%) or meningitis (43%, compared with 52%-58%) are still fatal diseases in the EU.
However, 85 percent of Europeans do believe vaccination is an effective way to prevent infectious diseases, the poll found.
Jyrki Katainen, EC Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, said: "Vaccination is one of the most successful public health measures to date. Not only do vaccines prevent diseases and save lives, they also reduce healthcare costs.
“Herd immunity is crucial, particularly when one has a compromised immune system and can not be vaccinated.”
The WHO says “vaccine hesitancy” - driven partly by misinformation and online fake news - is one of the top 10 public health threats in 2019.
UNICEF warned in a March 1 report that 98 countries worldwide reported more cases of measles in 2018 compared to 2017, eroding progress against a disease that is more contagious than Ebola, tuberculosis or influenza. Among the countries with the largest increases in measles is Ukraine.
The Eurobarometer survey of 27,524 respondents was carried out by Kantar in the 28 EU states between March 15 and March 29.