A growing anti-establishment movement in Europe, fueled by social media and populist anti-establishment, is putting lives at risk and could be blamed for measles outbreaks that hit a 20-year high, health experts warn.
A new Guardian analysis of WHO data shows that measles cases in Europe will exceed 60,000 this year – more than double that of 2017 and the highest of this century. There were 72 deaths, twice as many as in 2017.
Health experts warn that vaccine skeptics are reducing rates of measles, HPV vaccination against cervical cancer, flu and other diseases – and that their opinions are increasingly being amplified by social media and right-wing populists , equally skeptical of medical authorities.
EU health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis accused right-wing populist politicians of irresponsibility, selling "false news" about vaccine safety and fueling the climate of doubt.
Andriukaitis, a former cardiac surgeon, said he was very concerned, adding, "Not just me – the entire scientific society is concerned – epidemiologists, pediatricians, infectious disease specialists and many health ministers.
"It is unimaginable that we have measles deaths – children dying from measles. We promised that by 2020 Europe would be free of measles. "
Seth Berkley, head of the Gavi Global Vaccine Alliance, said skepticism is as contagious as a disease. He said: "It is very difficult to inoculate because there is no stable authority in the world now, where institutions and facts are being routinely questioned and lying is OK."
"We are in a very vulnerable place now," said Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
"There is more hyperbole in the US. But I do not know a country in the world that does not have some questioning going on, "she said. Different vaccines trigger opposition in different countries, from MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) to the flu vaccine and HPV against the virus that causes most cancers of the cervix.
The World Health Organization, the EU and the US have set up groups to investigate the causes of vaccine hesitancy and look for ways to help reassure people. Larsen said, "The reason WHO has changed the tone about how important and serious this is is because they had so many Member States coming to them and saying," Can you help us? "
Right-wing populist politicians from the US to Italy, Poland and France joined the anti-vaccine movement, supporting skeptics and defending the right of parents not to immunize their children in countries where it is compulsory before they begin school.
"They are very irresponsible," said Andriukaitis. "What can we see in this populist movement? Irresponsibility. Now it's very important to see [what they will do in power]. Let's see what happens to these measles outbreaks when you have these [in charge] who used false news from the beginning. "
Recent data have consistently shown a close correlation between vaccination rates and measles outbreaks.
A sharp drop in vaccination rates in France in 2010 was followed by an increase in measles cases the following year. In Italy, when immunization rates fell in 2014, cases have increased from a few tens of times a month to hundreds. In Romania, vaccination coverage fell below 90% by 2014. By 2017, she was experiencing more than 1,000 cases per month, compared to just one or two.
Right-wing populist politicians and other anti-establishment party leaders said they were against globalization and the profit of multinational corporations, the commissioner noted. They credit stories of "fake news" in social media claiming that drug companies are spreading viruses to the population to sell vaccines. And they support calls to overturn mandatory vaccination, where they could win votes.
Andriukaitis said: "It's very dangerous. My message is very simple now – you have elected many anti-vaccine politicians in parliament and now you have them in some governments. Are you ready to follow your decisions based on false news or evidence-based decisions? There are only two options – false or evidence-based news. "
In Italy, members of the anti-establishment movement Five Star Movement (M5S) and its far-right wing ally, proclaimed unsafe vaccines before coming to power in a populist coalition government. In 2015, the M5S proposed a ban, citing a spurious link between vaccines and specific diseases such as leukemia, poisoning, inflammation, immunodepression, hereditary genetic mutations, cancer, autism and allergies.
Once in government, facing what was the second-largest measles outbreak in Europe after Romania last year, the M5S seems to have softened its line, although observers have said that it is not clear exactly where Italy's populist coalition is. At the beginning of December, the Minister of Health of the M5S, Giulia Grillo, dismissed the entire board of the most important committee of technical-scientific experts in the country.
In Poland, a small but vocal number of populist politicians support anti-vaxxers who want to end compulsory vaccination. The most prominent are members of Kukiz & # 39; 15, an "anti-systemic" political party similar to Italy's M5S. He supported Justyna Socha, the leader of an anti-vax group called Stop NOP, which claimed there was a conspiracy among doctors who get money from drug companies to conceal the vaccines. effects.
Anti-vaxxers in the United States celebrated the presidential election of Donald Trump, who expressed skepticism about the vaccines and invited Andrew Wakefield – the discredited gastroenterologist who claimed the MMR vaccine linked to autism – to the inaugural ball. Trump was also said to have considered setting up a committee to investigate vaccines under the anti-vaxxer vocal Robert F Kennedy Jnr.
Skepticism has been highest in France, according to research from the Vaccine Confidence Project. Doubts about vaccination were fueled by the suspicion of pharmaceutical companies. Far-right populist leader Marine Le Pen has backed those who wanted to overturn mandatory vaccination, saying that not enough is known about the long-term consequences of various vaccines and pointing to the profits made by vaccine companies.
Lisa Menning, who works with global vaccine acceptance at WHO, said some populists and anti-vaxxers "share a distrust of the authorities and even scientific expertise."
She added: "We have seen how vaccination is increasingly an easily politicized issue, whether around elections, on opposing mandates, whether it is being exploited by religious or other individuals or groups who are interested in using vaccination for financial or political gain or to build own prestige or celebrity. "
It could go both ways, she said. Other populist politicians have pressed for compulsory vaccination as an easy, often reactionary, solution for low immunization rates.
Larson said global vaccine coverage has stagnated. She said, "It's falling in some places and we have those pockets [of low immunisation] and this will not get easier, especially as more and more vaccines and combinations of vaccines are being brought on board.
"Part of the challenge is that there are several things and many of them are outside the scope of an immunization program – it's political, it's religious and it's increasingly part of people's identity."