Parents who opt not to vaccinate their children are one of the 10 biggest threats to global health this year.
So says the World Health Organisation (WHO), which released a list of what it thought would be this year’s biggest health concerns.
The list included HIV, weak primary health care, Ebola and other high-threat pathogens, as well as vaccine hesitancy.
The organisation defined vaccine hesitancy as the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate, despite the availability of vaccines. It added that it threatened to reverse progress made in tackling preventable diseases.
The WHO said: “Vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease – it prevents 2 to 3 million deaths a year, and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved.
“Measles, for example, has seen a 30% increase in cases globally. The reasons for this increase are complex, and not all these cases are due to vaccine hesitancy. However, some countries that were close to eliminating the disease have seen a resurgence.”
The organisation said people chose to not vaccinate for various reasons.
“A vaccines advisory group to WHO identified complacency, inconvenience in accessing vaccines and lack of confidence as key reasons underlying hesitancy.
“Health workers, especially those in communities, remain the most trusted advisers and influencers of vaccination decisions, and must be supported to provide trusted, credible information on vaccines.”
Researchers from Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (Crest) are hoping to get into the minds of anti-vaxxers with their study to better understand the anti-vaccination movement.
Crest lead researcher Marina Joubert said the study aimed to not only better understand the messages and claims of anti-vaccination lobby groups, but also its potential effect on vaccination programmes in South Africa.
Joubert said it was significant that the WHO identified vaccine hesitancy (or resistance) as a significant health risk around the world.
“This underlines the importance of understanding why so many people are not convinced that it is safe and beneficial to vaccinate their children.
“We know from earlier social science research related to people’s attitudes about vaccines that it does not necessarily work to bombard people with lots of information about vaccine safety (and the dangers of not vaccinating).
“In fact, overloading people with facts about the diseases that can result if you don’t vaccinate may actually backfire and make them more resistant.”
She added that it was difficult to change the minds of anti-vaxxers.
“Once people have decided something is unsafe, they will process information about vaccines in a specific way, focusing on views that confirm their existing views and reflecting anything that opposes what they already believe. This is called cognitive bias and motivated reasoning.”
She said that in their research they hoped to find out whether there were any differences in anti-vaccine communications between South Africa and other parts of the world.