106th Global Health Histories seminar: Vaccine hesitancy – why do some people not vaccinate?

Video recording of the session

Despite the real and tangible benefits of immunization for both health and sustainable development, many parents and health-care providers across the WHO European Region avoid vaccinating their children and patients. Vaccine hesitancy poses a threat to the health and well-being of Europeans, and reasons for hesitancy vary considerably across Member States.

On 3 July 2018, WHO/Europe and the WHO Collaborating Centre for Global Health Histories at the University of York (United Kingdom) brought together international experts to explore the social, environmental, cultural and historical context of vaccine hesitancy. They also discussed the effect that vaccine hesitancy may have on the efficacy of contemporary immunization programmes within the Region.

Mr Robb Butler, Programme Manager for Vaccine-preventable Diseases and Immunization at WHO/Europe, said, “Vaccine hesitancy is a multifaceted and powerful phenomenon. We need to investigate the behavioural determinants of vaccination and better understand the complex web of social issues surrounding vaccine hesitancy.”

Dr Heidi Larson, Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (United Kingdom) and Director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, explained that historical and political issues unrelated to vaccination can get played out through vaccine hesitancy. For example, outside the Region, vivid memories of paramilitary violence in El Carmen de Bolivar, Colombia, have shaped the way families perceive and respond to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. Due to this violence, families have come to view interventions in their community with distrust, which has negatively affected HPV vaccine uptake rates.

The speakers highlighted a variety of different approaches to addressing the growing issue of vaccine hesitancy. For example, they noted the positive possibilities afforded by technologies such as microneedles and patches for making vaccinations less unpleasant for children, and the potential for message framing and social media to reduce vaccine hesitancy.

Both speakers indicated the need for interdisciplinary perspectives to address vaccine hesitancy. They underlined the value of WHO/Europe’s cultural contexts of health project, which takes a systematic approach to researching how culture affects perceptions of, access to and experiences of health and well-being.

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