The number of measles cases is growing at an disturbing rate. The World Health Organization has raised the alarm on the infectious disease, announcing that the numbers worldwide have grown by 300% in the first three months of 2019, when compared with the same time period last year. Yet, the viral illness is not only spreading in countries with limited access to healthcare, but also here in Europe, we are seeing children and adults falling ill with this potentially life-threatening condition. Whilst vaccinations against the virus have kept it at bay for many years, a fall in the number of children being vaccinated has opened the flood gates for a sharp increase in new cases.
The rate of babies, children and adults falling ill with measles is being directly linked with a so-called ‘anti-vaccination’ or ‘anti-vax’ movement that is sweeping the continent and the rest of the world. Parents and carers are being put off from vaccinating their children, because of the false information being spread about them. In particular, the measles vaccine is being put under the microscope by vaccination sceptics, who claim the vaccination is not safe.
These claims are largely based on a discredited study that found the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine caused autism. Andrew Wakefield, the physician who conducted the study, was struck off by the General Medical Council in the UK, due to unethical and dishonest practices. Today, over 20 years later, these dangerous, unscientific claims are resurfacing.
The source of this misinformation comes in many forms. Social media and parenting forums have been silently fuelling fears surrounding vaccinations, whilst certain religious leaders have also been encouraging their communities not to vaccinate their children against the illness. It’s not entirely clear what those who are spreading the anti-vaccination message are seeking to achieve, but it seems apparent to me that their words will have serious ramifications. The only reason the rates of infectious diseases, such as measles, were on the decline was due to effective vaccinations. So, to claim that not vaccinating children will be beneficial is illogical. It will simply result in more babies, children and adults falling ill, with the potential for developing life-changing or life-threatening complications. I doubt anybody wants that.
Spreading false information about vaccinations has convinced certain parents and carers that not vaccinating their child is worth the risk. But who are these people spreading misinformation? They are not the healthcare professionals who look after babies, children and adults who have become so unwell with the virus that they are being admitted to hospital. Or the scientists who spend years developing safe and effective vaccinations against potentially deadly deceases. I fear those leading the anti-vaccination movement do not have the best interests for the health and wellbeing of families and communities in mind. They are playing on the emotive nature of the conversation about vaccinating children, by plucking discredited evidence from the past, and framing it to fit their argument. They have not considered why we need vaccinations in the first place, or the consequences of the falling numbers of children being vaccinated.
Governments across Europe are so concerned by the anti-vaccination rhetoric that many have proposed steps to mandate vaccinations for young children. Parents and carers in Germany could face a fine of €2,500 for not vaccinating their children; the same applying to unvaccinated teachers and healthcare professionals. For those living in Italy, the government suggested that unvaccinated children would not be allowed to attend school, whilst the health secretary of the United Kingdom says he “won’t rule out” compulsory vaccinations for children. Elsewhere in Europe, countries like Finland and Luxembourg do not have compulsory vaccinations, yet their rates of uptake are better than other countries on the continent.
Given the disparity in approaches across Europe, it seems clear that governments in countries with falling vaccination rates may struggle to decide which approach to take. The fining of parents or carers who do not vaccinate their children might help vaccination rates, yet it could be argued that a fixed fine may only encourage families who cannot afford to pay the fine to vaccinate their children. Preventing children from attending school would punish the child for a decision they cannot make themselves, rather than their parents or carer.
With that in mind, the attention should perhaps turn to those spreading misleading and inaccurate information about vaccinations; could they face fines or other sanctions? At a time when facts are held in disregard - an example arguably set by the President of the United States and other politicians - social media channels need to look at how they prevent such inaccuracies from spreading like wildfire, especially when their consequences could be so grave for the health of the population.
What’s more, parents needs to be given the tools to understand why their children should be vaccinated. This could be done through information classes, or country or pan-Europe education campaigns about how vaccinations work and why certain studies linking vaccinations to autism have been discredited. Without engaging with parents, families and communities, it’s clear that they will feel forced into making a decision against their own judgement, should compulsory vaccinations be introduced. This would force a further wedge between these communities and healthcare professionals to the detriment of their child’s health.
Vaccinations have become a topic of debate across Europe and the rest of the world, but let us not forget that those who are calling for an anti-vaccination movement are undoing decades of improvements to the health of children. The reason rates of infectious diseases, including measles, were falling was due to vaccinations. Rates will only get worse if current trends continue. Now is the time to educate families about how vaccinations work and the benefit they will have for their child’s health. Moreover, governments planning to mandate vaccinations or introduce sanctions for those who do not vaccinate their child should also consider action against those spreading false messages about vaccinations. Only then will we see fewer babies, children and adults suffering with the health consequences of not being vaccinated.
Hadley Stewart is a London-based writer, broadcaster and medical journalist
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