As the world’s top drugmakers and researchers race to develop vaccines for the coronavirus, a new global study has highlighted the varying attitudes towards the safety of jabs from country to country.
Researchers asked almost 300,000 adults across 149 countries whether they see vaccines as important, safe and effective, in the largest-ever global survey of vaccine confidence conducted between 2015 and 2019 – a period before the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The findings published on Friday by The Lancet medical journal showed that political instability and misinformation affects negatively on public trust towards vaccination programmes, researchers said.
The study found six countries where vaccine confidence had dropped significantly since 2015: Indonesia, Pakistan, Serbia, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
According to Heidi Larson, a professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine who led the research, this was linked to trends in political instability and religious “extremism”.
She said online misinformation was also a significant problem, adding that public mistrust in politicians in general also likely played a role.
“When there is a large drop in vaccination coverage, it is often because there’s an unproven vaccine safety scare seeding doubt and distrust,” Larson said.
Indonesia saw one of the largest falls in public trust worldwide between 2015 and 2019, triggered in part by religious leaders questioning the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, and by local healers promoting natural alternatives to vaccines.
In some European countries, by contrast, public trust in vaccines has risen since 2015.
In France, where confidence in vaccines has been consistently low for decades, the survey saw an increase from 22 percent to 30 percent of people strongly agreeing they are safe.
In Britain, confidence in vaccine safety rose from 47 percent in May 2018 to 52 percent in November 2019.
Researchers urged governments to ramp up investments in public information campaigns and infrastructure development for the potentially forthcoming coronavirus vaccine.
Daniel Salmon, from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that without this “there is a risk of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines never reaching their potential due to a continued inability to quickly and effectively respond to public vaccine safety concerns, real or otherwise”.
Larson said overall, there is “a lot of confidence” globally about vaccines – but “don’t take it for granted”, she warned.
“Confidence goes up and down … it’s highly variable,” she added, adding that such volatility is much stronger than it used to be.
“Among some countries, there is more polarisation of sentiment. More people are going to the extremes of ‘strongly disagree’ or ‘strongly agree’,” Larson said.
The report was released on the same day the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged countries to find $15bn during the next three months to fund the ACT-Accelerator programme, a World Health Organization-led global collaboration to hunt for a coronavirus vaccine and treatments.
The WHO lists vaccine hesitancy as one of its top 10 global health threats, and dipping levels of immunisation coverage have seen outbreaks of preventable diseases such as polio and measles in recent years.
Larson said with the coronavirus vaccine race in full swing, governments should now be extra vigilant about assessing public trust in vaccines and responding rapidly to concerns.
“There’s a lot of anxiety about the speed of vaccine development (for COVID-19),” she said.
“But the public is not really keen on speed – they’re more keen on thoroughness, effectiveness and safety.”