During the past years, Europe has seen an increase in vaccine hesitancy, the rise of disinformation, and problems in accessing vaccination services. The situation naturally differs between countries, but also within the countries. The recent trends have however led for example to measles outbreaks and are becoming a concern now with the COVID-19 pandemic. European countries are trying to tackle these issues together and individually.
Doctors and other healthcare professionals play a crucial role in delivering facts based on scientific evidence and increasing public awareness about the benefits of immunisation. They are often the most trustworthy source of vaccination information and therefore important advocates to drive vaccine acceptance. However, there is evidence that some doctors and healthcare professionals feel ill-equipped to answer questions or engage in difficult conversations on vaccination, particularly with reluctant patients and parents. In addition, healthcare professionals’ own confidence in vaccination is not always high.
The Standing Committee of European Doctors (CPME) is working actively to promote vaccination among its own members across Europe but also among the public. Since 2019, CPME has also been co-chairing a Coalition for Vaccination which brings together European associations of healthcare professionals and relevant students’ associations in the field. This Coalition, convened by the European Commission, aims to support delivering accurate information to the public, combating myths around vaccines and vaccination, and exchanging best practices on vaccination.
This February, the Coalition issued a manifesto calling on healthcare professionals to get vaccinated against COVID-19. It highlights that by vaccinating they can protect themselves from illness and possible severe or life-threatening complications and help safeguard healthcare capacity. Moreover, it reminds that the safety and effectiveness of all authorised COVID-19 vaccines have been studied thoroughly in large, controlled and randomised clinical trials before their approval. Last year, the Coalition ran a campaign to remind that it is vital that countries continue their routine immunisation services also in the middle of the pandemic.
Widespread and targeted advocacy and communication campaigns are essential to raise especially the general public’s awareness and tackle vaccine hesitancy. They can show people evidence-based facts and lead them to further reliable sources. It is important that people are able to find easily correct and up-to-date information on vaccination. Moreover, it is important that this information is clear and understandable for them. Communication campaigns should also target specific groups like the vulnerable and socially excluded.
Social media channels are heavily used for mis- and disinformation, but these very same channels can be used for promoting vaccination and breaking the myths. Policies counteracting fake news and misleading information about vaccines on social media, while magnifying accurate information and sources, should be implemented where possible.
In the EU, member states have the primary competence for vaccination policies. However, the EU can assist in coordinating their policies and programmes. One of the areas for action is strengthening the rapid response capacity for cross-border threats like communicable diseases and improving disease prevention and response by promoting vaccination. During the COVID-19 crisis, the role of the EU has increased. It has coordinated a joint effort to secure the production of a sufficient quantity of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines through advance purchase agreements with vaccine producers. Moreover, it has ensured crisis management and coordination through constant contact between member states and EU institutions.
Moreover, already before the pandemic, the European Commission launched a joint action to strengthen cooperation between European countries to fight vaccine-preventable diseases. Also CPME is a stakeholder partner in this initiative.
The COVID vaccination plays a central role in saving lives, stopping the pandemic, and protecting the health care systems, but also helping restore the economy. At the same time, other vaccines remain the main tool for primary prevention of disease. Vaccination is one of the most cost-effective public health measures available, so let us use it.
Author: Prof. Dr. Frank Ulrich Montgomery, President of the Standing Committee of European Doctors (CPME)