Vaccine Hesitancy: An Emerging Threat

Illustration by Jennifer Broza

Illustration by Jennifer Broza

According to World Health Organization’s “Ten Threats to Global Health in 2019” list, one of the main threats people around the globe will face is vaccine hesitancy. Vaccine hesitancy, explained as “the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines”, has been a growing epidemic over the past years with the help of some celebrities, doctors and parents (1).

A vaccine is a substance made up of dead or weakened pathogens. It introduces the pathogens to the body so that the person doesn’t get sick once he/she encounters the normal germ that causes the disease (2). As such, vaccination is one of the most cost effective ways of avoiding diseases; it currently prevents 2-3 millions deaths a year. Vaccines are helpful in the eradication and elimination of diseases, controlling mortality and morbidity rates, preventing infections, extending the life expectancy for humans, promoting peace, preventing development of antibiotic resistance, minimizing cost for healthcare, and even protection of the unvaccinated population (5).

While eradicating a disease is very hard to accomplish because the vaccination rates have to be very high to exterminate certain viruses or bacteria, some diseases have been eradicated in the past. Smallpox and type 2 poliovirus have been eradicated globally, and the WHO and other organizations are working hard for the eradication of type 1 and 3 of poliovirus (5).

Some vaccines such as Hepatitis A and HPV (human papillomavirus) have been proven to be effective against infections. This type of protection against diseases is called “sterilizing immunity” and although the protection against the infection might decrease over time, the protection against the disease will always be 100% if the person is vaccinated properly and on time (5).

Since preventing a disease is actually cheaper than treating a disease, vaccination also has economic benefits. According to a 2005 study done by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for every dollar spent on childhood immunization, the healthcare industry saved $5, and the society that vaccinated their children saved $11 (6). Malaria, a mosquito-borne infectious disease affecting humans and other animals caused by Plasmodium microorganisms, costs sub-Saharan Africa US$ 100 billion worth of lost annual gross domestic product (5).

Apart from the biological and economical advantages, vaccination also has many  social advantages for communities. Usually, the burden of infectious yet mostly preventable diseases fall disproportionately on the disadvantaged. Some immunization programmes have proven to temporarily help remove socioeconomic dividedness in disease incidences. For instance, in Bangladesh, measles vaccination programmes promoted equity between high and low socioeconomic groups during a measles outbreak. Also with the decreasing morbidity and mortality rate of infants and children, women started to have fewer children, resulting in significant health, educational, social and economic benefits for women’s empowerment (5).

Even with all these advantages, vaccination, especially the vaccination of infants, is still a controversial issue . Mothers are worried about their child mentally deteriorating or getting fatally sick after vaccination. Currently, around the globe, 13% of parents decide to not vaccinate their children. In some regions of Europe, it goes as high as 17% (7). Social media plays a big part in the vaccine hesitancy because of homophily, the tendency of people to form connections with people who think similarly and who have similar socioeconomic status, beliefs and characteristics, and how easy it is to access information. Conspiracy theories circle around the web and they appear with false data, horror stories and worried “mom-bloggers”, warning potential vaccinating parents. People who have anti-vaccination beliefs usually disregard pro-vaccine information (7).

Very influential people, including famous actors like Jim Carrey and Charlie Sheen, singers like Alicia Silverstone, and the famous tattoo artist Kat Von D are all against vaccinating their children. For instance, Kat Von D opened up about how she is not going to vaccinate her newborn this June (3). Von D’s Instagram post flamed the myths around vaccinations and many comments supported her choice to not vaccinate her kids . In her post, Kat Von D stated: “(I have)… the intention of raising a vegan child, without vaccinations. Your negative comments are not going to influence my choices – actual research and educating myself will – which I am diligently doing.” (4)

With new measles outbreaks appearing everywhere because of children unvaccinated due to the slander that MMR vaccine causes autism, vaccine hesitancy has become a big threat to both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, and to the herd immunity. As educated people, we should continue informing people that vaccines are necessary and helpful, regardless of the fervent backlash they have getting.

Edited by: Irene Antony

Illustrated by: Jennifer Broza

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