Czech Authorities Fighting Vaccine Hesitancy

Photo: Filip Jandourek

There are new warnings about a possible outbreak of measles in European countries including Czechia. Despite repeated warnings by the World Health Organization and national authorities, some Czech parents still refuse to have their children vaccinated. Our reporter Vít Pohanka spoke to both the opponents and proponents of vaccination for children and took a broader look at the issue.

Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio
In 1956 Elvis Presley spoke to kids about the dangers of polio on US national television. The king of rock’n’roll was recruited by the United States Public Health Service in its crusade to immunize millions of young people all over America.

It took mankind quite a long time to get to that point. The first primitive vaccines started to appear as early as the 18th century, the British government attempted to introduce compulsory national smallpox vaccination in 1853. But it was only after WW II that coordinated vaccination campaigns took off mostly in the developed countries. Czechoslovakia was no exception.

In the 1960s and 70s compulsory vaccination of all children seemingly became something that no responsible parent could ignore. But there always existed a minority that had a problem with that. Under communism, it was virtually impossible to object. It all changed with the arrival of freedom and democracy and especially after the advent of the Internet where both information and disinformation spread with the speed of lightning.

The percentage of children who were given all the vaccines deemed necessary by the authorities started falling. Measles and other infectious diseases started to reappear mainly, but not only, in Eastern Europe. The World Health Organization put „vaccine-hesitancy“ among the top ten global threats. What exactly does that mean? I called doctor Sidharta Datta, vaccination expert at the WHO European Headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark:

Photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio
"The WHO has this broad issue of vaccine hesitancy because of the potential effect it may have on overall reduction in vaccination coverage. It, in turn, could increase the spreading of some vaccine-preventable diseases that we have not seen now for many years.“

But what are the arguments of Czechs who oppose compulsory vaccination? Václav Hrabák speaks for „Proočkovaní“, a Czech association of parents and activists who say that the authorities have no right to force them to do something that they consider dangerous or even harmful to their children:

"I am not against vaccination as such. I also believe that it can save lives. But what I believe is wrong is the timing. The whole vaccination calendar for children as it is applied by the Czech authorities is not right. To give you an example, let´s take the tetanus vaccination. I think it makes sense for a child to be vaccinated if he or she goes to horse-riding summer camps, if he or she plays on a farm, can come into contact with pitchforks, etc. I would recommend vaccination in such cases. But I certainly do not think it right to vaccinate each and every child at the age of 9 weeks as stipulated by the calendar.“

Mr. Hrabák’s arguments are quite reasonable. However, there are some really wild stories and theories about a conspiracy of national governments and the pharmaceutical industry. The main idea is, that they deliberately keep some part of the population sick in order to increase profits for the pharmaceutical industry. These stories circulate mainly on social networks. Czech Deputy Health Minister Roman Prymula admits that his ministry has been slow to react:

Roman Prymula,  photo: archive of Czech Health Ministry
„We have, undoubtedly, underestimated work with social networks. The older generation of people does not use them often, if they use them at all. Now we have a situation where some information spreads over social networks and gains momentum by itself. So we have whole communities of people who are exposed to constantly repeated untruths about vaccination and they start to believe them.“

So what should Czech and other health authorities do to increase vaccination of children? Doctor Siddharta Datta of the WHO places emphasis on a sensitive and patient approach on the side of health professionals and governments:

"They have to make sure that trustworthy information is available to the parents when they go out and seek information. And we at the WHO believe that the media are the platform where such information should be available. The Internet and social networks are here with us to stay, they will not go away. And it is the responsibility of health authorities and professionals that the real and overall benefits of vaccination are made clear.“