It’s Official: The Anti-Vax Movement Is a Threat to Global Health

The World Health Organization has put the anti-vaccination movement among the top ten threats to global health, saying that vaccine hesitancy is threatening global health security.

Officially dubbing the problem “Vaccine Hesitancy”, the World Health Organization notes that, “Measles, for example, has seen a 30% increase in cases globally. The reasons for this rise are complex, and not all of these cases are due to vaccine hesitancy. However, some countries that were close to eliminating the disease have seen a resurgence.”

This puts the anti-vax or vaccine hesitancy problem alongside other global threats, such as Ebola, antibiotics resistance, a global influenza pandemic, as well as poor primary health care and hostile environments, to name just a few on the list.

Why Vaccine Hesitancy is Hard to Tackle

The one thing that is particularly frustrating about the vaccine issue—unlike many of the other threats the WHO highlights in its latest list—is that, while it is a complex problem, it is also one of our own making.

Vaccines prevent an estimated three million deaths every year and save countless people from life-altering complications from pathogens like measles, chicken pox, HPV and more.

Despite this, the anti-vaccine movement has grown exponentially in the past few decade. Social media has helped the misinformation that caught fire as a result of the debunked MMR scare spread far and germinate,  and the consequences are becoming apparent.

In terms of the aforementioned cases of measles, Europe saw measles cases hit a 20 year high in 2018. While not all of that can be attributed to the anti-vaccine movement, EU health groups have said that right-wing populists have been instrumental in spreading anti-vaccine myths.

We have also seen this manifest in other ways.

Despite the proven effectiveness of the HPV vaccine and its ability to cut cervical and anal cancers, uptake of the vaccine in many parts of the world, including the US, remains worryingly low. The reasons for this are complex—for example, many do not know that in many places boys are also eligible  for the HPV vaccine and benefit from its protection. There is also a strong campaign of misinformation over the HPV vaccine’s safety profile, despite it being overwhelmingly positive in a number of high-quality large-scale reviews.

Not all parents who are skeptical of vaccines deny their safety.

Spreading Out Vaccine Schedules is Also an Issue

Often, hesitant parents may ask that vaccine schedules be changed, so that the vaccines can be spaced out. This often stems from a belief not that the vaccines are necessarily harmful, but that children get too many vaccines in a short space of time. Parents therefore seek to find a middle ground and try to change those vaccine schedules, or perhaps will miss doses here and there.

This is well-meaning and not necessarily based on the same rhetoric as the anti-vaccine movement as a whole, but it is also dangerous.

Vaccine schedules are not designed arbitrarily. Some vaccines will only work to their full potential when administered to young people who have never been exposed to the pathogens from which we are seeking to protect them. Other vaccines require follow-up doses within a certain timeframe in order to be fully effective.

It is true that in some cases doctors may consider changing a vaccine schedule, if a child has an underlying health condition. This may lead to the belief that vaccine schedules can be flexible. However, for optimum effectiveness the schedule should remain as prescribed unless there is an overriding health reason not to proceed. Doctors, not parents, are the ones who are best placed to make that decision.

The Herd Immunity Problem

Another factor that may be driving vaccine hesitancy isn’t necessarily a doubt over whether vaccines work, but rather a belief that hinges on the fact that they do. Many people believe that vaccines aren’t necessary anymore, because the diseases they protect us from are no longer so widespread.

This may make intuitive sense, and indeed there is such a thing as herd immunity that protects people who aren’t vaccinated. As we are seeing in places like Europe, though, collective protections soon begin to crack and indeed fall apart as vaccination numbers dip.

For many vaccines we need over 90 percent coverage in order to come close to virtual eradication. Eradication does not mean the pathogens are gone but rather that the number of infections is so low that they are no longer classed as public health threats. We are falling far short of that, and with vaccine numbers dipping, herd immunity will collapse.

The issue is, many vaccines are so effective that people today do not know, for example, what a bad case of measles actually looks like. Measles can cause a range of health problems, including lifelong physical and mental impairment and in some cases even death.

So how do we tackle vaccine hesitancy?

Those responsible for our health—from doctors to politicians who control health spending and education initiatives—must educate the general public on real vaccine science and, critically, why vaccine schedules are the way they are.

In addition, it is not enough to just try to debunk anti-vaccine scare stories. Social media platforms and news agencies must share the responsibility of highlighting anti-vaccine stories as they are shared. This may look like a warning label, saying that the source of these stories may be untrustworthy or responsibly reporting on vaccine safety studies and individual incidents of vaccine complications in a way that is mindful that one case of a bad reaction does not eclipse the thousands of cases where people have had little to no reaction to a vaccine and have benefited from its protection.

Anti-vaccine misinformation and vaccine hesitancy are global problems, but unlike many threats facing the world today, we can educate people out of vaccine complacency and guard against the misinformation surrounding vaccines.

Take Action!

Please sign this Care2 petition to help protect children from anti-vaccine scare tactics that could lead to mass outbreaks of polio and smallpox.

Creating a Care2 petition is easy. If you have an issue you care deeply about, why not start your own petition? Here are some guidelines to help you get started and soon the Care2 community will be signing up to support you.


Photo credit: Getty Images.


Frances G
Carla G1 months ago

Thanks for posting

Barbara S
Barbara S1 months ago

thank you

Son Y.
Son Y.3 months ago

@DrJanHill: You would think so, except there may be some who *legitimately* cannot get vaccines for whatever reason (e.g., immunocompromised), and _they_ absolutely must depend on everyone else doing their part.

Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson3 months ago

Thank you.

Anna R
Anna R3 months ago

thanks very much

zef rose
zef rose3 months ago

Before you accept or debunk anything, do your own research. Governments lie. It's just a fact. Corporations lie. Billionaires lie. They all lie to stay in power and they stay in power by controlling people, and they control them by lying to them. They own and control all the means of communication. This is a fact. Look it up. Just do your own research. Just do it. Look something up. Get several opinions from several sources. Compare and contrast conflicting information. Quit just listening to people you don't know and believing without studying. Don't be stupid. Don't be just part of the herd.

Fran F
Fran F3 months ago

Petition signed and shared on November 8, 2018. Thanks!

Peggy B
Peggy B3 months ago

The US could lower the amount of non vaxxers by giving individual vaccinations as other countries offer. Most don't want the combined vaccinations. I also think that if a person not having the vaccination without a medical reason prohibiting it develops the disease and gives it to a person who cannot be vaccinated due to allergies, low immune system due to cancer, etc, premmie babies or pregnant woman who could not be inoculated should be treated the same as when people knowingly had unprotected sex while they had aids. That was a prison sentence so what's the difference? These non-vaxxers are the young people that didn't grow up having known someone who went blind or died from measles or a pregnant woman that had a handicapped baby due to being exposed. The parents of the anti-vaccinated child should be held accountable for abuse and neglect if their child gets the disease and dies or ends up disabled. Anti-vaxxers are totally ignorant and selfish. Many of my family are in the medical profession and I've asked all of them if they know of anyone in the profession that hasn't inoculated their children and there isn't even one, yet these young parents with no education think they know more. Yes, there is mercury in vaccines as there has been for 70 years, but it isn't the same type of mercury that is toxic. This mercury is eliminated within hours of the vaccine being administered. You will be contaminated with more mercury eating a portion of any kind of

Lindsay K
Lindsay Kemp3 months ago

Many thanks for sharing.

Ruth S
Ruth S3 months ago