The Irish Times view on vaccine hesitancy: putting lives at risk

Vaccines are one of the key targets of fake news and every TD and Senator should support efforts to fight back

It is a proven scientific fact that vaccines are one of the greatest medical innovations, given their ability to save lives. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It is a proven scientific fact that vaccines are one of the greatest medical innovations, given their ability to save lives. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

 

Minister for Health Simon Harris has labelled hesitancy around vaccinations “one of the greatest threats to public health”. His view is shared by the World Health Organization (WHO) which has listed “vaccine hesitancy” among 10 global health threats in 2019. The WHO said that vaccination currently prevents up to three million deaths a year, and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved.

It is a proven scientific fact that vaccines are one of the greatest medical innovations, given their ability to save lives. They are responsible for the near-eradication of smallpox and polio and a significant reduction in harm caused by many other infectious diseases.

However, to be effective, immunisation programmes need a high level of uptake in a given population. This is due to herd immunity, in the absence of which levels of a microbe circulating in the community remain above a critical point. This enables disease outbreaks to become regular occurrences. One of the principal barriers to herd immunity in recent times is vaccine hesitancy. A global survey revealed Irish people have a lower than average belief that vaccines are safe; some 74 per cent of people here express trust in vaccines, less than the global average of 79 per cent.

Reasons for vaccine hesitancy are legion: they include philosophical viewpoints, poor education and religious beliefs. But the phenomenon of false news plays an increasingly important role. Alt-right movements have perfected false news campaigns on social media, and their methods have been taken up by anti-vaccine campaigners worldwide. Vaccines are presently one of the key targets of fake news.

In response to the public health threat, Harris has sought support from Opposition parties for a cross-party motion on vaccination which calls on the Oireachtas to reduce vaccine hesitancy, strengthen dialogue with people who have concerns about vaccinations, and establish a vaccine alliance. Every TD and Senator should support the idea.

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