United in Protection: vaccination is a show of solidarity!

Ahead of European Immunisation Week (EIW), taking place from 23 to 29 April 2023, Isabel de la Mata -principal advisor for Health and Crisis Management at the European Commission-  talks about the benefits of lifelong vaccination, which is at the heart of the Commission’s United in Protection campaign and a major theme for this year’s EIW.

What is behind the Commission’s focus on lifelong vaccination?   

Vaccination is one of the most effective tools for preventing disease and improving health, saving millions of lives each year. But to work, people need to continue rolling up their sleeves and get vaccinated.  

It is only natural that people may associate vaccination with the pandemic, considering our recent experiences, and an element of vaccination fatigue is understandable. But vaccination shouldn’t only be an emergency response.    

Vaccination should be an integral part of our lives from infancy, through adolescence and into old age.     

Childhood vaccination has saved millions of lives. In fact, it’s been so successful that people often forget that not that long ago, it was common for children to die or become severely handicapped due to polio and smallpox. Thanks to safe and effective vaccines, we have decreased the burden of many childhood diseases, but we cannot become complacent. We’re also encouraging people to catch up on vaccinations, in line with nationally recommended schedules, that they may have put off during the pandemic. 

We also hope to eliminate the impact of papilloma virus on warts and cervical and other cancers through vaccination against the Human Papillomavirus that causes them. To reach that goal, Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan has set the target of vaccinating at least 90% of the EU target population of girls and significantly increasing the vaccination of boys by 2030. 

Many countries also recommend boosters for diseases such as diphtheria, hepatitis or tetanus during adulthood. With lifelong vaccination, we are promoting protection throughout the life course.    

What is the public perception of vaccination, post COVID-19?   

Europeans are generally favourable towards vaccination. According to the 2022 State of Vaccine Confidence in the European Union report, 81.5% of respondents agree that vaccines are important, with similar numbers agreeing that they are effective and safe. 

Yet, despite such promising numbers, there are significant variations between countries and vaccine types. For example, the percentage of people in different Member States who think vaccines are safe ranges from 93.7% to just 60.4%.   

Similarly, confidence in Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccination ranges from well over 90% who think it is important to less than 72% in some countries. We are also seeing a gap between the perceptions of older demographics and younger people, which is a worrying sign for things to come.   

What is United in Protection and why was it launched?   

United In Protection is an awareness campaign launched by the Commission’s Directorate General for Health and Food Safety that builds on the work done during the COVID-19 pandemic and aims to raise awareness of the benefits of vaccination. 

Just like the European Vaccination Information Portal, the campaign aims to empower people to make informed decisions about their health and to show solidarity with those around them. 

It was launched against the backdrop of widespread vaccine misinformation, which precedes the pandemic, but which can also undermine the stability and security of the EU. The spread of false narratives has led to some regions having worryingly low vaccination coverage, which can pose a threat to us all.  

By working with vaccine advocates, healthcare professionals and national authorities, as well as through targeted, paid dissemination, we are making sure that reliable information reaches people wherever they are.  

Anyone can access the campaign’s free multilingual toolkits with suggested messaging and visuals. 

This is part of SANTE’s vaccine misinformation counter initiative, which also incorporates an online teacher training course about vaccination and comic books for teenagers.   

What else is the Commission doing to combat mis- and disinformation on the topic of vaccination?  

Misinformation about vaccination is not new but it spreads like wildfire.  Even when the modern smallpox vaccine was introduced in the 1950s, sceptics downplayed the disease’s threat and made false claims about unproven side effects. 

The Commission is working closely with all partners to tackle the spread of misinformation and disinformation to ensure the protection of European values and democratic systems. For example, signatories to the Code of Practice on Disinformation made a significant effort to keep people informed about the virus and vaccines, under guidance from the EU. 

Yet, work in this area goes beyond vaccination and includes unprecedented policy actions, like the European Democracy Action Plan, which includes legislation on Transparency and Targeting of Political Advertising and the Digital Services Act and supports fact checkers. 

Within the Commission, the Network Against Disinformation monitors and identifies false narratives, correcting misinformation through debunking techniques, media interviews and online community management.  

What would be your message to people reading this interview ahead of EIW?   

Take a moment to check in with your doctor and make sure you and your family are up to date with the recommended vaccines. And then join us spreading the word about the benefits of vaccination for all. Together, we are united in protection.