Education versus anti-vaxxers: evidence from Europe

Vaccine skepticism and hesitancy – the distrust and skepticism that some members of the public feel for vaccines, as well as for institutions that deliver and encourage vaccination – has emerged as a major threat to world health. Vaccine skepticism is not limited to any particular place; it has been observed across a range of countries, cultures, and levels of prosperity. Vaccine skeptics have made themselves known in Hollywood, led protests in Washington D.C., and lashed out violently against vaccination in Pakistan and Northern Nigeria. Vaccine skepticism has truly gone global.

Vaccine skepticism comes at odds with the proven benefits that vaccines have brought to humanity. The widespread adoption and use of vaccines and antibiotics led to sharp declines in the incidence of, and mortality caused by, infectious diseases. Except for the 1918 global flu epidemic, infectious disease mortality in the United States fell linearly before plateauing in the 1950s, at under one-tenth of the rate seen in 1900.

Vacine hesitancy threatens to reverse years of progress towards reducing measles deaths and ultimately eliminating measles as a threat, as immunization levels in many communities are at or below the 95% level required for herd immunity. In fact, the World Health Organization has seen more cases reported in the first half of 2019 than in any year since 2006. It is clearly time to reappraise vaccine policies and programs.

The role of education

Many people may find it difficult to understand and assess risks and benefits of vaccination, especially in the presence of Wakefield’s fraudulent argument that the MMR vaccine causes autism, while vaccines have been so successful that more people have seen autism than the diseases targeted by the vaccines.

Since one might hope that education can provide both the facts needed to make intelligent decisions about vaccination and the ability to reason, we ask here what is the relation between education and vaccine skepticism.

We use 2017 education data from the United Nations Development Program Human Development Reports, and data on vaccination attitudes from the Vaccine Confidence Project, published in 2016. These data include 28 European countries, with wide ranges in the prevalence of vaccine skepticism (13.5% in the median country did not agree that vaccines were safe, with a range from 4.2% in Portugal, to 51% in France) and years of education (16.4 in the median country, with a range from 12.7 in Azerbaijan to 19.8 in Belgium).

We found a weak (R2 = 0.1847) but statistically significant (p = 0.022) inverse relationship between education level and vaccine skepticism: by country vaccine skepticism decreased by about 2% for each additional year of education.

The relationship between years of schooling and vaccine skepticism, by country.

However, there are significant outliers, consistent with the low coefficient of correlation. For example, among the least educated countries, vaccine skepticism in Bosnia and Herzegovina is 36%, compared with 13% in the less educated Azerbaijan. Vaccine skepticism is 51% in France but 4.2% in Portugal, again despite similar educational levels (16.3 years in Portugal, 16.4 in France). Among the most educated countries, vaccine skepticism was 5.5% in Israel but 14% in the more educated Belgium.

Questions for research

It is clearly important to understand the cultural and other reasons behind the outliers in these data, in order to address the health challenge of vaccine skepticism. Here we offer some speculations and questions for further study.

The European countries with the best systems of education are generally those that were the first to industrialize, reach developed status, and adopt nationwide vaccination programs. As such, their present populations may be very historically removed from the infectious diseases that once plagued the European continent. As such, people in these countries may be less appreciative of the difference that vaccines have made, and more likely to be influenced by anti-vaccine messages.

Another factor to consider may be the politicization of anti-vaccine attitudes. It is possible that vaccine skepticism has become more prevalent simply because more people subscribe to political ideologies that are distrustful of the medical establishment and, more generally, institutions typically associated with their governments. France is again one such country where people are increasingly doubtful of their political institutions and are therefore wary of completely trusting ideas promoted by their government. This is more apparent than ever with the recent yellow vest protests seen across the country.

Distrust is often rooted in real instances of the abuse of public trust by, as well as the failure of, institutions, such as the Tuskegee syphilis trials, the Thalidomide birth defect crisis of the 50s and 60s, as well as unethical pharmaceutical trials that modern drug companies have carried out in developing countries, such the meningitis antibiotic trials that Pfizer carried out in Northern Nigeria during the mid 1990s. Vaccine skeptics have also lobbied for religious exemptions to be upheld in places that were considering their removal due to the resurgence of certain diseases like measles.

A study conducted in Romania concluded that unfavorable information spread by the media regarding vaccines was the lead cause in increasing vaccine skepticism in the country. With one third of the population being skeptical about vaccines, politicians and the reputation of the pharmaceutical industry were also named as reasons people feared vaccines.

In some countries, such as Greece and Romania, medical professionals have often been found to be skeptical of vaccines themselves. These health care workers have expressed concerns regarding the guilt they would feel if patients were to experience negative side effects after receiving vaccines, claiming that certain hepatitis and HPV vaccines have been banned in other countries due to fears of patients developing tumors and autism. These claims are reminiscent of Wakefield’s false and damaging claims that the MMR vaccine caused autism.

Residents of former Yugoslav countries, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, have attributed lack of vaccine confidence to a discomfort with the relationship between physicians and patients. By evoking the times when the practice of immunization went unquestioned, physicians appear to be advocating the reestablishment of the authoritative power relationship between physicians and patients under socialism.

Given the well-documented strong evidence of the benefits of vaccines, we are left with a communication challenge – how to communicate key scientific facts needed for intelligent decision-making in a respectful, non-threating, non-condescending way.


Harold Hastings’s journal round-up for 24th December 2018

Every Monday our authors provide a round-up of some of the most recently published peer reviewed articles from the field. We don’t cover everything, or even what’s most important – just a few papers that have interested the author. Visit our Resources page for links to more journals or follow the HealthEconBot. If you’d like to write one of our weekly journal round-ups, get in touch.

Mandatory Medicare bundled payment program for lower extremity joint replacement and discharge to institutional postacute care: interim analysis of the first year of a 5-year randomized trial. JAMA [PubMed] Published 4th September 2018

I will focus on two themes: one local to the United States – bundled payments for Medicare, and one global – the economic burden of sepsis. Finkelstein, Ji, Mahoney, and Skinner described the results of a study aimed at assessing the effects of bundled Medicare payments (as opposed to payments for each component of treatment) upon care and costs of lower extremity joint replacement. Finkelstein et al. found only one significant difference between the bundled carte group and a control group: the percentage discharged to institutional care decreased from 33.7% in the control group to 30.8% in the bundled care group, that is, one fewer patient per 33 treated. There was no significant difference in costs or quality of care. In this sense I must differ from the optimism of an associated editorial; to me, a true success would include a significant reduction in cost together with an improvement in outcome. Thus, in terms of bundled Medicare payments, we are not at the end, not even the beginning of the end, but perhaps near the end of the beginning (my apologies to Winston Churchill).

Epidemiology and costs of sepsis in the United States—an analysis based on timing of diagnosis and severity level. Critical Care Medicine [PubMed] Published 1st December 2018

Epidemiology of sepsis in Brazil: incidence, lethality, costs, and other indicators for Brazilian Unified Health System hospitalizations from 2006 to 2015. PLoS One [PubMed] Published 13th April 2018

Sepsis care continues to pose among the most significant health challenges world-wide, both in terms of economics and mortality, with mortality ranging from 10% to almost 80% depending upon severity. In terms of cost, sepsis treatment in the US averages over $18,000 per hospitalization with almost 1 million cases admitted annually, while Brazil spends 1/30 of this amount (~$600 per hospitalization), and 1/10 of this amount for sepsis treatment in the ICU ($1,700 per hospitalization). Mortality in Brazil is higher than that in the US and higher in public hospitals than in private hospitals. The studies offer complementary suggestions for improvement: in the US study, Paoli et al. call for early detection of sepsis as a way to reduce its severity and thus its cost. In the Brazilian study, Neira et al. conclude that limited economic resources may contribute significantly to high mortality, an observation that should concern all of us interested in world-wide health. Clearly both improved detection and more effective, lower cost treatments are essential to address the health and economic burdens of sepsis. The following paper reviews a potential answer to the latter question – that of more effective, lower cost treatments.

Ascorbic acid, corticosteroids, and thiamine in sepsis: a review of the biologic rationale and the present state of clinical evaluation. Critical Care [PubMed] Published 29th October 2018

In terms of the cost of sepsis treatment, it is interesting to note that an intervention successful in a single-site, retrospective review involved a combination of three “cheap and readily available agents with a long safety record in clinical use since 1949.” Mortality decreased from 40% to 8.5%. The 2018 review describes mixed reaction based on informal cost/benefit/risk analysis while nine trials are underway. If these trials prove successful, it might be hoped that the low cost would spur world-wide incorporation of ascorbate-corticosteroid-thiamine therapy for sepsis – addressing world-wide incidence of 15 million cases annually and mortality approaching 60% in less developed countries. An optimist might even hope for reduced mortality at significantly reduced costs, reminiscent of oral rehydration therapy for diarrhoea developed in Bangladesh 50 years ago and responsible for a 90% relative reduction in mortality.


Harold Hastings’s journal round-up for 16th July 2018

Every Monday our authors provide a round-up of some of the most recently published peer reviewed articles from the field. We don’t cover everything, or even what’s most important – just a few papers that have interested the author. Visit our Resources page for links to more journals or follow the HealthEconBot. If you’d like to write one of our weekly journal round-ups, get in touch.

Legal origins and female HIV. American Economic Review [RePEc] Published 13th June 2018

I made this somewhat unusual choice because the author Siwan Anderson draws an important connection between the economic and legal status of women across sub-Saharan Africa and the incidence of HIV. As summarized in the American Economic Review feature Empowering women, improving health, “Over half of all people living with HIV are women. Of all HIV-positive women, 80 percent live in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Anderson hypothesizes that regional differences in female property rights (lower in common law eastern and southern Africa than in civil law central Africa) may explain significantly higher HIV incidence in eastern and southern African women, especially relative to eastern and southern African men. Health economists have long studied how economic status affects access to health care; Anderson presents an important and interesting complementary argument for how economic (and legal) status affects health. In particular, improved legal status and access to legal aid may be a key step in improving women’s health.

Addressing generic-drug market failures — the case for establishing a nonprofit manufacturer. The New England Journal of Medicine [PubMed] Published 17th May 2018

We have recently seen shortages in many generic drugs, including generic injectables used in emergency, trauma and other hospital medicine. In many cases, there is only a single supplier, who can dramatically increase prices. One might expect others to enter the market in this case. However, frequently significant fixed start-up costs pose a barrier to entry and the single supplier, who has already made and in many cases paid for the start-up investment, can drastically reduce prices to make it difficult for the competition to cover these costs. Thus there is little incentive to enter a potentially low-profit market. The authors propose establishing a nonprofit manufacturer, essentially a pharmaceutical counterpart to a variety of national and nonprofit health systems, as a novel and a potentially successful way to address this issue.

An incomplete prescription: President Trump’s plan to address high drug prices. JAMA [PubMed] Published 19th June 2018

The prices of many drugs are significantly higher in the United States than in much of the rest of the developed world. President Trump proposes some market actions such as granting Medicare negotiating power; but the authors find these insufficient, making two interesting additional proposals. First, since much pharmaceutical development derives from NIH funded research (including chimeric antigen receptor T-cell immunotherapies which may cost $400,000 US per dose), the authors argue that the NIH and academic institutions could require US prices based upon independent valuations or not to exceed those in other industrialized countries. The authors also suggest authorizing imports where there is adequate regulation as a further mechanism for controlling drug prices; in my opinion a natural free-trade position. The pricing of pharmaceuticals remains complex and perhaps new economic models are needed to address the risk and cost of pharmaceutical development. Kenneth Arrow’s critiques of the limitations of economics to address health issues might provide interesting insights.

Cost-related insulin underuse is common and associated with poor glycemic control. Diabetes Published July 2018

I would like to conclude by citing a recent abstract providing a human side to the growing cost of pharmaceuticals. Darby Herkert (a Yale undergraduate) reported that a quarter of almost 200 patient responses to a survey of patients at a New Haven, CT, USA diabetes center reported cost-related insulin underuse. Underuse was prevalent among patients with lower income levels, patients without full-time employment, and patients without employer-provided insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. Patients reporting underuse had three times the incidence of of HbA1c >9%. These results cite the human costs of high insulin prices in the US. A Medscape review cites the high cost of typically prescribed insulin analogs, and quotes the lead author calling these prices irrational and describing patients living near the Mexican border crossing the border to buy their insulin.