Geneva, 21 May 2019 (PAHO/WHO) - Delegations from the countries attending the 72nd World Health Assembly shared experiences and ideas on how to build confidence in vaccines and step up global immunization efforts to preserve the health of all generations. This side event was organized by the United States, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, and other countries.

The Secretary of Health and Human Services of the United States, Alex Azar, said that around the world, complacency, misunderstanding and misinformation is causing vaccination rates to decline, with tragic results, despite the fact that vaccines are safe and life-saving. He pointed out how rumors keep those who need it most from getting the vaccine to prevent Ebola, how terrorist activities cause problems in receiving the polio vaccine, and how conspiracy theories on social networks are confusing parents with good intentions.

Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services

Azar talked about the situation in the United States, which in recent months has led to a significant increase in measles cases, the highest number since measles was declared eliminated in the country in 2000. “But we can fight back and you won’t find a more committed government,” the Secretary said. He reported that the U.S. is looking into ways to raise more awareness about the need to be vaccinated and said that it was important to work closely with different sectors, such as religious leaders or social networks, as well as with parents to encourage them to discuss any doubts with their doctors. He said that grandparents could be another way to boost confidence in vaccines, since they know from the past about diseases such as measles.

The Minister of Health of Brazil, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, reiterated Brazil’s commitment to achieving high vaccination coverage and restoring confidence in vaccines. He said that questions about vaccines may be a multicultural issue that is occurring in several segments of the population for different reasons, especially given the use of social networks where questions about the effectiveness of the vaccine are amplified.

Enrique Mandetta, Ministro de Salud de Brasil

“Vaccines could be our meeting ground when we talk about universal health coverage. It’s a topic that we can agree on. Vaccines should be universal,” Mandetta stressed, referring to the measles outbreak that started in northern Brazil, where there was a major flow of migrants coming into the country from Venezuela. The minister explained that this outbreak not only led to the launch of a vaccination campaign in the affected area, but also a “vaccination movement at the national level.” In addition, Brazil is strengthening vaccine production and research, he said.

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam, commented that vaccination coverage rates in that country are good, though not optimal, since there are pockets of low coverage among certain population groups. She explained that they have been continuously monitoring the misleading or false information on vaccination that comes out on the Internet, and that there is a plethora of websites of unknown origin with this type of content.

A recent measles outbreak in one of the nation’s provinces sounded the alert to start exploring new avenues to address the loss of trust in vaccines, she said. In conjunction with other agencies such as WHO, they began working with social network platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to identify information flows and coordinate ways to counteract or even remove this type of misleading information. Another approach is creating a coalition of partners and allies to share public information that operates in similar ways as anti-vaccine groups, in order to build confidence in vaccines.

According to GAVI’s CEO Seth Berkley, although there is a strong scientific consensus on vaccine safety, network algorithms favor sensationalistic content. He urged working with the companies behind social networks to prevent false information on vaccines from continuing to circulate.

The panelists also spoke about the need to work with health workers to empower them to answer questions appropriately and persuade parents that they need to vaccinate their children. They also agreed that a social movement should be created to boost confidence in vaccines.