Give It a Shot

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During the last week of April, World Immunisation Week is celebrated every year to raise awareness about the life-saving impact of vaccines and to promote immunisation programmes for vaccine-preventable diseases. According to the WHO, people got vaccinated at a consistent rate before the Covid-19 global pandemic, which caused a dramatic upheaval, predominantly due to the sudden strain it imposed on public health systems. Although coverage is improving to pre-pandemic levels, yet in 2022, there were 20 million children that missed at least one (or more) of their 13 recommended vaccines. The reasons behind this are varied and nuanced: regional conflicts, vaccine hesitancy, financial difficulties – to name a few. In order to acknowledge these challenges, the theme for the World Immunisation Week this year is ‘Humanly Possible,’ which aims to improve access to vaccinations for all, while addressing the misconceptions against immunisations. 

We can argue that out of all of the conceivable challenges, the biggest threat to the future of vaccines is vaccine hesitancy. This is primarily because if an individual does not want to be vaccinated, then they won’t get vaccinated irrespective of the campaigns or the availability of vaccines. The WHO website even has a dedicated FAQ article titled ‘Vaccines and immunization: Myths and misconceptions’ which was notably published in October 2020. 

However, this challenge, though exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, has been consistent since the introduction of vaccines in the Victorian era. A published paper, in all its linguistic glory, detailed the ‘construction and exploration’ of a ‘Victorian anti-vaccination discourse corpus’ which revealed that the fears driving vaccine hesitancy “appeared to remain relatively stable over the centuries.” The corpus does not delve into a comparative analysis, but the data demonstrates that concerns such as “vaccine efficacy” and “death” or “diseases” caused by vaccines have been at the forefront of anti-vaccine literature. Doesn’t it all sound familiar? 

There is no evidence to suggest that the proportion of vaccine hesitancy has increased, but we can connect its effects to the measles and whooping cough (or pertussis) outbreaks. In 2023, measles outbreaks across Europe infected 58,000 people. Similarly, the latest outbreak of whooping cough in England reported 555 cases in January and 913 new cases in February 2024. The total amount of whooping cough cases reported in 2023 was 858. The answer of the UK Health Security Agency to this is simple – “low vaccine uptake.” This scenario isn’t new either. In 1974, vaccination rates across the UK dropped for whooping cough leading to an epidemic with 100,000 cases and 36 deaths.

Vaccines work and there is strong evidence for it. The successful eradication of smallpox is the most potent example. More recently, in January 2024, a study conducted by Public Health Scotland along with the universities of Edinburgh and Strathclyde confirmed the success of the country’s Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination programme. In 16 years following the inception of the programme, there has not been a single case of cervical cancer reported by the women that have been vaccinated. The achievement of this programme serves not only as a positive example but also contributes to the global ‘Cervical Cancer Elimination Initiative’ that has a target of eliminating the disease by 2030.  

“If you want peace, prepare for war” is a Latin proverb that fittingly describes how vaccines can be our weapons to avoid the future outbreaks from growing into epidemics and pandemics. Currently, persuasion via factual scientific evidence is our only tool against vaccine hesitancy, because unlike in the Victorian era, vaccination isn’t compulsory even if it did eradicate smallpox. 

Written by Simar Mann, who has recently graduated from her master’s degree in Infectious Diseases.
Edited by Anna Motylova, EUSci’s Online Editor and a 4-th year undergraduate studying Biological Sciences.


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