Who are anti-vaxxers?

Scientists say vaccines are safe, effective and important for children. Then why is it that a significant group of people disagree?

Updated - July 02, 2019 04:46 pm IST

Published - July 02, 2019 04:33 pm IST

The world seems to be divided over vaccines. While eight in 10 people in developing countries, including India, trust vaccines to be safe and effective, only 59% of people in the West and Europe agree to the same. They’re the anti-vaxxers: people against vaccines.

A recent survey by the Wellcome Global Monitor, a UK-based non-profit Trust involving 140 countries, has brought out the data at a time when the anti-vaxxers are all over social media, talking about the dangers of vaccines.

Who are the anti-vaxxers? Typically, parents who do not wish to vaccinate their child. The report identifies the South Asian countries with the strongest confidence in vaccines, whereas in high-income countries, the number of people who do not believe in the effectiveness of vaccines and even refuse to immunise their offspring, is rising.

“Vaccines are the most powerful public-health tools and vaccinations lead to herd immunity,” says Dr Rohini Sridhar, a pathologist and COO, Apollo Hospital-Madurai. “When parents choose not to vaccinate their children, they put not only their own, but also other children at risk.”

The anti-vaccine movement gained momentum in the West, largely due to misconceptions about the link between vaccines and autism in children. This can be traced backed to the now-discredited paper published by Dr Andrew Wakefield in The Lancet in 1998. It discussed a possible association between MMR vaccines and autism.

People’s faith in science is influenced by their background, culture and context. And with the misinformation becoming mainstream, there could be a negative impact on the global fight against diseases that are vaccine-preventable.

For instance, measles that was declared to be eliminated in 2000, due to an innovative vaccine programme, made a comeback in 2014 in California. In 2013, Texas faced the largest outbreak of whooping cough since 1959 and a 12% increase in parental vaccine refusal compared to 2006.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that more than 21 million hospitalisations and 732,000 deaths among children born in the last 20 years will be prevented because of vaccinations.

The Indian Government’s national immunisation programme, Mission Indradhanush, makes it mandatory to administer in children the Pentavalent vaccine (protection against five preventable diseases: diphtheria, tetanus, Hepatitis-B, pertussis and haemophilus influenza-B in a single prick), the Measles-Rubella and oral polio vaccine. It has set 2020 as the deadline to achieve more than 90% full immunisation coverage in the country and made it mandatory for school students in 201 high-focus districts across the country.

Dr Rohini says, “Vaccine hesitancy is not a significant problem in clinical practice in India. If at all parents raise concerns about the safety of vaccines, it can usually be overcome by a detailed discussion and dispelling of myths.”

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