Public health experts are fed up with the anti-vaccination movement, which is most recently behind a surge of the completely preventable disease measles in the U.S. this year. So much so that a group of them has decided to issue a statement calling for institutions around the world - from search engines and social media outlets to governments - to forcibly rein them in.
Crafted by some of the most well-known and leading experts in vaccine advocacy and research, the so-called Salzburg Statement on Vaccination Acceptance, released Wednesday, is also endorsed by members of the World Health Organisation and researchers across the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
According to Scott Ratzan, co-author as well as founder of the International Working Group on Vaccination and Public Health Solutions, the statement was at least partly inspired by the WHO’s recent decision to list declining rates of vaccination as a major threat to global health earlier this year.
“For the first time in the history of the World Health Organisation, vaccine hesitancy is a top ten priority. This reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases,” Ratzan told Gizmodo via email.
Among other demands, Ratzan and his co-authors are calling for social media outlets and search engines to more aggressively monitor and police the dissemination of false anti-vax propaganda (including that vaccines can cause autism), which Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and YouTube have already begun to do - for doctors and health officials to find ways to convince reluctant or hesitant parents to vaccinate for the good of their children and community, and for governments to enact laws that strip non-medical exemptions for mandatory vaccinations.
And while some people have attempted to fight off efforts by local governments to levy fines or even the possibility of jail time for parents who refuse to vaccinate their children for measles during these recent outbreaks, Ratzan and his group aren’t opposed to these harsher laws either.
“The need for health and state agencies to take action is part of the arsenal to support community protection,” Ratzan said. “We have seat belt laws with enforcement and fines. We need to develop similar approaches with vaccination to normalize the importance of vaccination for community protection for oneself, family and community at large.”
Beyond its demands, the Salzburg Statement provides a brief lesson on the value of vaccination. Along with advances in sanitation, vaccines have helped dramatically drive down rates of once-universal and occasionally deadly diseases like measles, polio, and tetanus. Even today, they’re thought to prevent somewhere around 3 million deaths annually. Oh, and there’s the time they helped wiped out smallpox, one of the most devastating diseases ever to plague humanity.
“The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention ranked vaccinations as one of the ten great achievements of the 20th century. Yet, this year in the United States, drops in the coverage of vaccinated children has led to a worrying increase in outbreaks of measles and other childhood infectious diseases once thought to be eliminated in our country,” Ratzan noted.
So far this year, there have been more than 1000 cases of measles across 28 U.S. states - a toll not seen in the country for nearly three decades - and there’s no limit on how much worse things could get. Europe has had its own measles problem, too, with outbreaks threatening to reverse the progress toward the eventual eradication of the problem.
Of course, in many areas of the U.S., for many routine childhood shots, vaccine adherence remains high. It’s the pockets of unvaccinated communities that are most likely to contract and spread these diseases.
Changing the minds of hardened anti-vaxxers might seem next to impossible, but the group thinks there are still enough people that can be swayed into raising the vaccination rate back to the point where herd immunity can keep everyone safe.
“A new evidence-based, broad-based, and targeted communication campaign with a name such as ‘Safe Vaccinations for a Healthy America’ could send a clear signal of commitment to help parents and families understand the vital importance of protecting their children with vaccination,” Ratzan said.