Raising awareness about the key role of health professionals – The role of physicians in vaccination

It’s a shame: People are still dying of vaccine preventable diseases that should no longer exist in Europe. Some of them were already supposed to be eliminated but the rise of disinformation on vaccination, particularly online, the decline of people’s confidence in vaccination, and inadequate access to vaccines have led to new outbreaks of diseases such as measles.

More than 100 measles-related deaths and over 100,000 measles cases have occurred since 2016 in the WHO European Region. This has caused new concern for decision-makers, public health experts and healthcare professionals.

Coverage rates and the role of healthcare professionals

Due to insufficient vaccination coverage rates, the EU and its member states need to strengthen their cooperation to ensure equitable access to vaccines for all EU citizens. They have to fight disinformation and improve vaccine confidence. The Council of the EU has adopted a recommendation to strengthen the EU cooperation on vaccine-preventable diseases.

The European Commission has launched a joint action on vaccination and the European Parliament has adopted a resolution expressing concerns about Europe‘s insufficient coverage rates and its impact on public health. However, vaccination policy as such remains a competence of national authorities.

At the same time doctors and other healthcare professionals have faced a new challenge to tackle the declining coverage rates, not only in the EU, but across the whole world. Healthcare professionals play a crucial role in delivering facts based on scientific evidence and increasing public awareness about the benefits of immunisation. Doctors are often the most trustworthy source of vaccination information and therefore important advocates to drive vaccine acceptance.

However, there is evidence that some doctors and healthcare professionals feel ill- equipped to answer questions or engage in difficult conversations on vaccination, particularly with reluctant patients and parents. In addition, healthcare professionals’ own confidence in vaccination is not always high.

Education about vaccination facts and vaccination myths

Education of medical students is essential to enable new doctors to effectively communicate with their patients. Currently, education about vaccination during medical school is not yet optimal in all European countries. Vaccination should also be better addressed in continuous professional development. New skills are needed to address vaccine hesitancy and discuss vaccine-related concerns with patients.

Particularly good communication skills are needed to improve trust between doctors and patients. Vaccine hesitancy is not a new phenomenon, but nowadays it spreads fast on the internet. The small but vocal group of anti-vaxxers can influence normal people through different social media platforms.

Doctors and other healthcare professionals should be equipped to explain the difference between misinformation and the facts.

Raising awareness of parents should be started already during prenatal care. Healthcare professionals should also acknowledge that there is a small possibility of risks related to some vaccines for some individuals. Moreover, the collective interest of vaccination should be highlighted. Herd immunity works only when almost all people in the population are immunised. At EU level this means that one country‘s immunisation weakness puts the health and security of other countries at risk.

Role of the European Union and European umbrella organisations

European policies should support healthcare professionals and empower them to provide effective, transparent and objective information to the public and fight false and mis- leading information. The EU could undertake Europe-wide awareness campaign(s) on vaccination, propose common EU wide vaccination schedules and support education to improve communication on immunisation. EU actions should however be done under consideration of different settings in different member states.

The Standing Committee of European Doctors (CPME) is co-chairing a new Coalition for Vaccination together with the European Federation of Nurses Associations (EFN) and the Pharmaceutical Group of the European Union (PGEU). This Coalition gathers around 20 relevant European healthcare professionals’ and students’ associations to commit to delivering accurate information to the public, combating myths and exchanging best practices. The Coalition members can potentially outreach to millions of healthcare professionals, as many of them are major European umbrella organisations.

CPME has a long-standing commitment to affirming that the prevention of communicable diseases through vaccination is safe and effective. Immunisation through vaccination is the best protection against serious infectious diseases but also one of the most successful and cost-effective public health interventions.