There is a concern among some parents that vaccines are not good for their children.
Among their worries are that vaccines can cause autism and that they contain harmful substances such as mercury or arsenic.
In their fear, they may decide that the safer option would be to not vaccinate their children at all – after all, when was the last time this current generation of parents experienced or saw a case of polio, whooping cough (pertussis), mumps or any of the other infectious diseases vaccines protect us against?
Much vigorous, scientific research has been done over the decades to disprove the various claims that vaccines are more dangerous than beneficial for us. (Related story: What’s in the vaccines we give our kids?)
However, with a parent’s natural instinct to protect their children, fear often speaks louder than facts.
Professor Dr Pier Luigi Lopalco notes that the anti-vaccine movement is not a recent phenomenon and has, in fact, been around ever since Dr Edward Jenner (1749-1823) came up with the very first vaccine for smallpox.
“The difference today is that the anti-vaccine movement is more vocal, and they have this very, very powerful tool, that is, the Internet,” says the professor of hygiene and preventive medicine from the University of Pisa, Italy.
“They can spread disinformation very, very easily. And this is their power – they are spreading fear, especially to parents who are very scared of side effects and are very anxious (about their children’s health).”
In addition, there seems to be a growing lack of confidence in public institutions.
“People are trusting less and less in institutions; they are trusting less and less in the government, and also doctors, public health, research, universities.
“This is really something important that is happening, and we must make a call for regaining trust in public health and institutions,” he says.
Even worse is when some politicians take advantage of this fear to try to increase their voter base.
Says Prof Lopalco: “There was some research saying that in the United States, the anti-vaccine sentiment was worth some 5%-6% in terms of consent.
“So if you back the anti-vaccine movement, you can increase your voters by up to 5%.”
Too good for its own good
Vaccinations are also a victim of their own success.
Prof Lopalco gives an example of the generational change in attitude towards vaccination.
“When my mum, in the 1960s, was deciding whether or not to vaccinate me against polio, she had no doubt about vaccinating me, because she was scared and wanted to protect me, her little child, against such a terrible disease. (Polio is extremely contagious and can result in paralysis and death.)
“When I decided to vaccinate my children against polio in the late 1990s, the number of polio cases in Italy was very small.
“I decided to vaccinate my children because I wanted my children to live in a world without polio.
“So, imagine, in just one generation’s time, the world changed – my mum was scared of polio, I wanted to eliminate polio.”
He says: “So, this is a revolution that happened in just one generation, and it was an invisible revolution.
“And this is the problem, this revolution was invisible.”
Many once-prevalent infectious diseases have had their numbers drastically decreased due to vaccination programmes.
In fact, smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980, thanks to the smallpox vaccine, while polio now only continues to circulate in three countries in the world – Afghanis-tan, Pakistan and Nigeria – also thanks to an extensive global vaccination programme.
“But people now, when they don’t see the diseases, unfortunately, they worry more about the side effects.
“They worry more about the safety of vaccines and start losing confidence, start becoming complacent and not so vigilant about vaccination,” says Sanofi Pasteur Global Medical Affairs head Dr Ng Su-Peing.
“Unfortunately, that’s why we now see measles outbreaks, even in Europe and the US.
“And more recently, in Indonesia, there was a resurgence of diphtheria as well – something practically no one hears about today.
“And people forget that measles used to be one of the leading causes of pneumonia-related deaths in children.
“People forget that one in five children used to have to be hospitalised due to complications from measles.
“People also forget that diphtheria was a big killer in the 1900s of children,” she adds.
Public health impact
Says Prof Lopalco: “Vaccination is not just an act of individual responsibility; it is also an act of public solidarity.”
He notes that immunising one’s children not only protects them, but also indirectly protects other children who cannot be vaccinated because, for example, they are too young or have depressed immune systems due to certain medical conditions.
The viruses and bacteria that cause the infectious diseases we can get vaccinated against are still circulating among us, says Dr Ng.
However, she adds that a well-vaccinated population will create a “wall” to prevent these viruses and bacteria from entering the community – a concept known as herd immunity.
“However, when people get complacent and vaccination rates fall, that wall no longer becomes as firm as it should be.
“The viruses and bacteria can now enter the population and start circulating, and that is why these outbreaks happen,” she says.
Aside from protecting individuals and the community from infectious diseases, vaccines also have other impacts on public health.
One of them is on antibiotic resistance.
Says Dr Ng: “With the example of Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type B) disease, for instance, with the introduction of Hib vaccines in routine programmes, not only have we seen Hib disease reduce, we’ve also seen the resistance of the Hib bacteria reducing overall.”
Certain vaccines also help to prevent cancer.
“Many people in Asia are familiar with liver cancer being one of the most common causes of death in Asian populations. And hepatitis B virus chronic infection is the leading cause of liver cancer.
“Thanks to vaccination, this rate of liver cancer has reduced dramatically,” says the medical doctor from Singapore.
There is also a vaccine for the human papilloma virus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer, she adds.
“Another thing that vaccines can support is healthy ageing.
“As we have longer life expectancies, unfortunately, that comes along with other chronic diseases that we may have to deal with, like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
“And our immune systems also start to not be as effective as we age.
“So, with vaccination, we can help reduce the incidence of diseases like pneumonia, influenza and whooping cough, that can really dramatically impact our health system,” she says.
Giving the example of influenza, Dr Ng notes that vaccination can help prevent 60% of illnesses and hospitalisations, and up to 80% of deaths, in the elderly.
Prof Lopalco concludes: “To live longer and healthier, we should respect some simple rules: don’t smoke, eat well – maybe eat Mediterranean, do physical activity, and vaccinate.”
Dr Ng and Prof Lopalco were speaking at a roundtable on The Value of Vaccination, along with Sanofi Pasteur Global Research head Dr Nicholas Jackson, organised by the pharmaceutical company for the international media in Paris, France.