World Health Organization Declares "Vaccine Hesitancy" a Threat to Global Health in 2019

World Health Organization Declares "Vaccine Hesitancy" a Threat to Global Health in 2019
Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP
World Health Organization Declares "Vaccine Hesitancy" a Threat to Global Health in 2019
Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP
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The World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced ten threats to global health in 2019. Outlining these challenges at the beginning of each year has been a habit of late for the world's leading health agency. Usually, the WHO zeroes in on specific diseases, malnutrition, and potential pandemics, but this year, a health threat of a different variety also made the list: vaccine hesitancy.

"The reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines... threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases," the WHO declared.

That ominous prediction already started coming true in 2018. As vaccination rates dipped across Europe, cases of vaccine-preventable illnesses skyrocketed. Measles, a highly-infectious disease characterized by a furious fever and a menacing, body-covering rash, was particularly widespread, rising from 24,000 cases in 2017 to more than 60,000 last year. The disease was previously on the brink of elimination in Europe.

"It is unimaginable that we have deaths because of measles – children dying because of measles. We promised that by 2020 Europe would be measles free," the European Union’s health commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, lamented to The Guardian.

Vaccine hesitancy and the diseases it spawns aren't solely limited to Europe. In the U.S., New York state is experiencing its worst measles outbreak in decades, largely within insulated communities of ultra-Orthodox Jews where vaccine refusal is commonplace. Measles also spread like wildfire through Minnesota's Somali-American community in 2017, after anti-vaccine groups deliberately targeted them with a disinformation campaign.

Texas Tech University health scientists Chephra McKee and Kristin Bohannon elucidated a few of the reasons people refuse vaccines in an article published to The Journal of Pediatric Pharmacology and Therapeutics in 2016.

"The four categories are religious reasons, personal beliefs or philosophical reasons, safety concerns, and a desire for more information from healthcare providers," they wrote.

Safety concerns brought on by misinformation delivered via social media and disreputable websites was by far the most common reason for avoiding vaccines. Tales of nonexistent vaccine dangers frighten worried and loving parents into genuinely harmful inaction.

Despite the public health setbacks brought on by vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaccine charlatans who spread baseless fear, the World Health Organization has set ambitious goals for vaccination in 2019.

"In 2019, WHO will ramp up work to eliminate cervical cancer worldwide by increasing coverage of the HPV vaccine, among other interventions. 2019 may also be the year when transmission of wild poliovirus is stopped in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last year, less than 30 cases were reported in both countries. WHO and partners are committed to supporting these countries to vaccinate every last child to eradicate this crippling disease for good."

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