Anti-vaxxing is one of the biggest health threats to the planet, World Health Organisation says

John Moore/Getty Images‘Vaccine hesitancy’ was deemed a global health threat by the World Health Organisation.
  • The World Health Organisation (WHO) released its list of global health threats for 2019.
  • The list includes vaccine hesitancy, which is defined as “the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines.”
  • The agency says that 1.5 million deaths could be avoided each year if vaccine coverage improved.

Hesitating or outright refusing to vaccinate has been named one of the year’s biggest threats to worldwide health. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has published a list of 10 global health threats for 2019, including climate change, the rise of drug-resistant bacteria, HIV, and non-communicable diseases like cancer.

The list also includes vaccine hesitancy, a term defined as “reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines.” This hesitancy threatens global progress made against vaccine-preventable diseases, according to the agency.

“Vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease – it currently prevents 2 to 3 million deaths a year, and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved,” the WHO list said.

The list also noted that cases of measles, a vaccine-preventable disease, surged 30% across the globe in 2017.

“The reasons for this rise are complex, and not all of these cases are due to vaccine hesitancy. However, some countries that were close to eliminating the disease have seen a resurgence,” the list said.

Read more: Measles cases surged 30% last year due to ‘gaps’ in vaccine coverage, and experts say it’s ‘deeply concerning’

In the US, for example, the measles vaccine led to a dramatic reduction in measles cases, and the disease was even declared eliminated in 2000. But outbreaks have continued since then. They can occur when an infected person travels to the US from another country, and the virus can spread if it reaches communities where people aren’t vaccinated.

Last November, 17 children in New York City came down with measles after the virus spread in schools with unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated children. (In fact, New York state is currently in the midst of its worst measles outbreak in decades, the New York Times reported Thursday.)

In 2017, 75 people came down with measles in a Minnesota Somali-American community with “poor vaccination coverage,” according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2014, the US saw 23 measles outbreaks, including one that sickened 383 people primarily in unvaccinated Amish communities.

According to the list, the reasons why people opt out of vaccination are “complex,” but an advisory group to the WHO identified some explanations.

“Complacency, inconvenience in accessing vaccines, and lack of confidence are key reasons underlying hesitancy,” the list said. “Health workers, especially those in communities, remain the most trusted advisor and influencer of vaccination decisions, and they must be supported to provide trusted, credible information on vaccines.”

This year, the WHO said it will focus on HPV and polio vaccines

Afghani child with PolioGetty Images/Paula BronsteinPolio is a disease that can cause paralysis.

This year, according to the list, the WHO will work to increase coverage of the HPV vaccine, which prevents cervical cancer (and was recently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for men and women up to age 45.)

The list also said that 2019 could be the year that transmission of polio stops in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Polio is a vaccine-preventable disease that mainly affects children under 5, invading the nervous system and possibly leading to permanent paralysis or death. Afghanistan and Pakistan are two of three countries worldwide that have never stopped transmission of the disease, according to the WHO, but last year, there were just 30 cases reported in both countries.

“WHO and partners are committed to supporting these countries to vaccinate every last child to eradicate this crippling disease for good,” the list said.

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