Anti-vaxxers are hurting vaccination campaigns. We need to fight back

vaccination 2019 baby

UNICEF/Dejongh A little girl being vaccinated in the town of Bouaké, in Côte d’Ivoire. Immunization in the country is free for children bellow one year old, but three out of five children do not get vaccinated before their first birthday.

This article was exclusively written for the The European Sting by Mr. Jorge Félix Cardoso, a final year medical student at FMUP, Porto, and a MA in Political Philosophy candidate at UMinho, Braga. He is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.


For decades, it looked like vaccines were invincible. They were used to eradicate smallpox and to turn deadly diseases, like polio and measles, into rare and unfortunate events. The success was so evident that, in 2010, the global health community declared 2010-2020 the “Decade of Vaccines”.

However, there seems to be trouble in paradise. Vaccines are starting to become victims of their own enormous success. People start wondering – why do we keep taking these vaccines, if we never heard from these diseases again? Confidence in vaccines is fading, thanks to coordinated efforts by a group of people, directed by conflicts of interest, entitled “Anti-vaxxers”. According to WHO’s “Global Vaccine Action Plan Monitoring – Secretariat Annual Report 2018”, in 2017, of the 159 countries that provided information about vaccine hesitancy, only seven countries reported its complete absence.

Recently, the Health and Food Safety Directorate-General of the EU has published its research on vaccine confidence, and results are worrying. In countries like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, even a relevant part of GPs do not believe the MMR vaccine is safe and important (37 and 25%, respectively). They also report a correlation between GP confidence and confidence among the general public.

This lack of confidence in vaccines leads to a decrease in vaccination coverage which, in turn, spoils the chance to eradicate some diseases and ends the “herd immunity” we had so costly acquired in the EU.

The website of the European Centre for Disease Control has a live tracker of measles epidemics: according to it, there are measles outbreaks in 4 countries and 33 deaths due to measles in 2018 so far, as of November 23rd (there’s actually another ongoing outbreak in my own country, Portugal)

How do we fight back? I do not have a complete answer, but I do have two suggestions

  1. Fight the disinformation at its source. Projects like vaccineconfidence.org, which tracks the global picture of trends and issues in vaccine confidence, looking for “outbreaks” of misinformation online and allowing such attacks to be countered, are crucial for achieving better vaccine literacy among the general public.
  2. Start teaching medical students (and other health professionals as well) how to communicate in the age of disinformation and generalized pseudoscience. When patients tell you that they believe vaccines cause autism, or that they think it’s better their kids have the disease and not the vaccine, how do you explain it’s not the case that such things are true? Kieslich shows, in a recent article, that understanding the discourse of deniers is crucial to develop a strategy against disinformation. Also, medical schools are not teaching how to communicate science, but at least they should know how to do it, which is partially disproved by those GPs that do not trust vaccines.

Simply hoping that science will prevail is not going to not work. We need to actively engage in this fight against an idea that threatens the huge progress made by the medical community. There’s still time, so let’s find the will.

About the author

Jorge Félix Cardoso is a final year medical student at FMUP, Porto, and a MA in Political Philosophy candidate at UMinho, Braga. Jorge is also a researcher at AI4Health, CINTESIS. Currently, Jorge is actively engaged in advocating for health and youth subjects, both through IFMSA and in his personal capacity.

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