Secretary of State, Minister, colleagues,
The success of vaccination is well documented. It saves up to three million lives each year.
It also offers important protection to the youngest and the oldest members of our society, to those most vulnerable to illness.
It is a fundamental part of our public health systems.
But I am not here to highlight the vaccine success story.
Instead, I want to focus on what we, as the public health community, need to do better.
We have become the victims of our own success.
As the incidence of vaccine-preventable diseases diminished in recent decades, the perception of risk also decreased.
At the same time, citizens have become more concerned about possible side effects.
Doubts developed about the need to vaccinate.
And sometimes we reassure ourselves with the belief that we will get the appropriate treatment if the diseases do occur.
Let me take measles as an example.
To be honest, I am not sure that many people truly understand how dangerous measles really is.
As a doctor, I have seen its impact at first hand – and we need to do more to prevent it.
In 2018, more than 12,000 cases of measles and 35 deaths occurred in the EU.
This is unacceptable to me - since an effective vaccine against measles has existed since the 1960’s.
This disease should have been eliminated in the European region by 2000, according to the objectives established then by the World Health Organisation.
Instead, only four countries in the EU achieve the necessary target of at least 95% coverage for two doses that leads to herd immunity. Moreover, WHO recently outlined alarming levels in measles in the European Region, identifying nine countries in the area as priority and informed about their decision to scale up the response. Situations in several of them affect directly the situation in Europe.
In this context, I will be awaiting with much interest today’s interventions from Romania and Ukraine, to better understand the causes and the ways to the improving the situation.
Individual decisions affect the whole population.
If we want to eliminate a disease, if we want to protect those who cannot be vaccinated, that are too young, too old, or too sick, we all need to vaccinate.
So, how do we move forward from here?
Well, confidence in vaccines is absolutely crucial.
As the EU’s Commissioner for Health, I can speak to this.
Currently, the EU is the region with the lowest confidence in the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.
This confidence is influenced by a number of factors, including how important, safe and effective citizens perceive vaccines to be.
So, we urgently need to do more to reinforce the truth about both vaccines and diseases.
We recently conducted a survey across the European Union about attitudes and knowledge on vaccination. Some of the results are worrying.
Let me give you a taste of the findings:
- 48% EU citizens believe vaccines can often produce serious side effects;
- 38% believe vaccines can cause the diseases against which they protect;
- 34% do not see the need to be vaccinated and 29% think vaccination is only necessary for children.
At the same time, the survey highlights where we need targeted action and it points to some solutions.
For example, it shows that citizens trust healthcare workers and health authorities to provide them with information and advice on vaccines.
So we need to support health workers and empower them so that they can build on this trust.
They are the frontline when it comes to vaccination.
The Coalition of Health Workers for Vaccination at EU level, which we recently established, recognises this.
It looks to strengthen the engagement of healthcare professionals and aims to increase vaccine acceptance and counter vaccination myths.
The survey also shows that a majority of citizens have a positive attitude towards vaccination – so we need to reinforce this positive perception.
The ball is in our court. And high-level side events like this one prove that the political will is there.
Now, we need to turn that political will into concrete action.