Confronting the vaccine challenge

Rebecca Martin and Seema Kumar

Rebecca Martin and Seema Kumar

Vaccines save millions of lives a year and are one of the most successful public-health interventions in the history of medicine. So why are growing numbers of people, particularly in the developed world, refusing to have them?

This question was at the heart of yesterday’s United Nations Foundation seminar, which explored what can be done to confront this growing global health crisis, now named by the WHO (World Health Organization) as one of the top 10 threats to humankind.

The irony is that, while the phenomenon of vaccine-hesitancy is increasing in the developed nations, the developing world is desperate for better access to them. “Every 12 seconds a child dies of a disease that could have been prevented by a vaccination,” said Rebecca Martin of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The situation is being exacerbated, she added, by the fact that more people are travelling. Added to this, misinformation is hampering take-up in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there is a pernicious belief that Ebola vaccinations make women sterile. “So just because you’ve got a life-saving tool, doesn’t mean that people will use it,” Martin said.

For Johnson & Johnson’s Seema Kumar, the solution lies in appealing to people’s hearts rather than brains. “We have to stop talking at people and start talking to them,” she said. “We have to move beyond facts and evidence to storytelling. I think that’s what’s been missing from the pro-vaccination campaigns so far.”

Harriet Palmer