Vaccination

Overview

Vaccination is the main tool for primary prevention of disease and one of the most cost-effective public health measures available. Immunisation through vaccination is the best defence we have against serious, preventable, and sometimes deadly, contagious diseases. Thanks to widespread vaccination, smallpox has been eradicated, Europe made polio-free, and many other diseases almost eliminated.

Current challenges

Today, more than 100 million children  worldwide  are vaccinated annually against diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, tuberculosis, polio, measles, and hepatitis B. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), vaccination prevents an estimated 2-3 million deaths worldwide each year and reduces disease-specific treatment costs, including antimicrobial treatments (prescribed for viral infections).

Despite its brilliant track record, several EU and neighbouring countries are currently facing unprecedented outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases due to insufficient vaccination coverage rates. The waning of public confidence in vaccination, geographical differences in accessibility,  and rise of disinformation on vaccination are a cause of concern and a major challenge for public health experts. Ensuring equitable access to vaccines for all EU citizens, fighting disinformation, and improving vaccine confidence are objectives shared by the European Commission and EU Member States.

There are very strict rules within the European Union for the approval of any vaccines put on the market. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) carries out the evaluation and supervision of vaccines, once these have been designed. Following very comprehensive testing, the European Commission can then issue a marketing authorisation. Once on the market, EMA continues to evaluate the safety of the vaccines and performs post-authorisation surveillance. All these steps are devised to ensure maximum safety, with the ultimate concern being the health and wellbeing of the population.

Vaccines contain antigens that confer immunity against specific pathogens, such as the influenza virus. However, for vaccines to be efficient, these also need to contain a number of other substances, including stabilisers, adjuvants and preservatives.

Stabilisers are needed to maintain the effectiveness of vaccines whilst in storage. Adjuvants, on the other hand, are compounds added to vaccines to improve the immune response. By stimulating the production of antibodies against a virus or bacteria, they make vaccines more efficient and long lasting. Preservatives are a third type of compound that is essential to prevent growth of dangerous bacteria or fungi, which is vital to guarantee the safety of vaccines. All components of vaccines marketed in the European Union undergo intense scrutiny and have been, through various studies, deemed safe in the context of those vaccines. For information on vaccine safety, the WHO offers a short online course on Vaccine Safety Basics.

Action at EU level

Vaccination policy is a competence of national authorities, but the European Commission assists EU countries in coordinating their policies and programmes.

The Council adopted in December 2018 a Recommendation to strengthen the EU cooperation on vaccine-preventable diseases. The initiative aims to tackle vaccine hesitancy, improve coordination on vaccine procurement, support research and innovation, and strengthen EU cooperation on vaccine-preventable diseases.

EU countries are encouraged to develop and implement national vaccination plans with initiatives to improve coverage, and to introduce routine vaccination status checks.

In addition the Commission supports EU countries in maintaining or increasing rates of vaccination by:

Joint Action on vaccination

The European Commission is reinforcing its support to national vaccination efforts to increase coverage, including through the Joint Action on Vaccination co-funded by the EU Health Programme (EUR 3.55 million).

Launched in 2018, the Joint Action addresses vaccine hesitancy and seeks to increase vaccination coverage in the EU. It is coordinated by INSERM (France) and involves 20 partners (among them 17 EU countries and 3 non-EU countries). 

It also works towards strengthening cooperation of national immunisation advisory groups (NITAGs) with a view to increasing transparency and trust in the decision-making process regarding the introduction of new vaccines.

Coalition on Vaccination

A “Coalition for Vaccination” was convened in spring 2019. It brings together European associations of healthcare workers as well as relevant students´ associations in the field. The Coalition will support delivering accurate information to the public, combating myths around vaccines and vaccination, and the exchange of best practices on vaccination.

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