Faced with a global resurgence of measles, health experts called on May 21, 2019, for countries to step up the fight against vaccine resistance, warning that the movement was spreading like a contagious disease.

World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus joined experts and health ministers from a range of countries at an event on “promoting vaccine confidence”, amid rising concerns that resistance to immunisation is allowing preventable diseases to flourish.

“No country can afford to be complacent about immunisation,” he told the meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, where the WHO was hosting its main annual gathering.

The organisation says cases of measles – a highly contagious viral infection that can prove fatal – surged 300% in 2018.

Resurgence of the once all-but-eradicated disease is linked to the growing anti-vaccine movement in richer nations, which has been identified as a major global health threat.

“It’s a contagious disease,” said GAVI Vaccine Alliance chief executive officer Seth Berkley, warning that misinformation about vaccine safety “spreads at the speed of light”.

The anti-vaccine phenomenon has adherents across all countries, but especially in the United States, where it has been fuelled by the spread on social media of medically baseless claims, debunked 20 years ago, that the jab could cause autism.

The US, which sponsored the event with the European Union (EU) and Brazil, lamented the “misinformation” causing vaccination rates in the country to decline.

“Vaccines are some of the most thoroughly tested medical products we have. Vaccines are safe, effective, and lifesaving,” US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told the meeting.

He slammed “social media conspiracy groups (that) confuse well-meaning parents so they hesitate to get the recommended vaccinations.”

“This misinformation has real impacts,” he said, pointing to the more than 700 measles cases in the US so far from January to May 2019.

Azar dismissed questions about whether past statements by US President Donald Trump in support of some anti-vaccination movement claims may bear some responsibility for the problem.

Pointing to recent comments by the president urging Americans to “get your kids vaccinated”, he stressed that Trump was “extremely firm” in his support of vaccination.

EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukatis meanwhile suggested that vaccine scepticism was in part linked to the fact that vaccines have been so effective that most people have no concept of how devastating the diseases they prevent can be.

“We have become victims of our own success,” he said.

Among the measures being taken to inoculate populations against the spread of misinformation about vaccine safety was putting pressure on social media companies like Facebook and Twitter to remove or flag demonstrably false information.

“This is wrong information that is killing people,” Berkley said.

According to WHO, vaccines save some three million lives annually.

“Vaccines do not cause autism. Vaccines actually cause adults,” said Katherine O’Brien, who heads WHO’s immunisation department. – AFP Relaxnews