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.

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Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 6th January 2020

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.

Child sleep and mother labour market outcomes. Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] [RePEc] Published January 2020

It’s pretty clear that sleep is important to almost all aspects of our lives and our well-being. So it is perhaps surprising that economists have paid relatively little attention to the ways in which the quality of sleep influences the ‘economic’ aspects of our lives. Part of the explanation might be that almost anything that you can imagine having an effect on your sleep is also likely to be affected by your sleep. Identifying causality is a challenge. This paper shows us how it’s done.

The study is focussed on the relationship between sleep and labour market outcomes in new mothers. There’s good reason to care about new mothers’ sleep because many new mothers report that lack of sleep is a problem and many suffer from mental and physical health problems that might relate to this. But the major benefit to this study is that the context provides a very nice instrument to help identify causality – children’s sleep. The study uses data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), which seems like an impressive data set. The study recruited 14,541 pregnant women with due dates between 1991 and 1993, collecting data on mothers’ and children’s sleep quality and mothers’ labour market activity. The authors demonstrate that children’s sleep (in terms of duration and disturbances) affects the amount of sleep that mothers get. No surprise there. They then demonstrate that the amount of sleep that mothers get affects their labour market outcomes, in terms of their likelihood of being in employment, the number of hours they work, and household income. The authors also demonstrate that children’s sleep quality does not have a direct impact on mothers’ labour market outcomes except through its effect on mothers’ sleep. The causal mechanism seems difficult to refute.

Using a two-stage least squares model with a child’s sleep as an instrument for their mother’s sleep, the authors estimate the effect of mothers’ sleep on labour market outcomes. On average, a 30-minute increase in a mother’s sleep duration increases the number of hours she works by 8.3% and increases household income by 3.1%. But the study goes further (much further) by identifying the potential mechanisms for this effect, with numerous exploratory analyses. Less sleep makes mothers more likely to self-report having problems at work. It also makes mothers less likely to work full-time. Going even further, the authors test the impact of the UK Employment Rights Act 1996, which gave mothers the right to request flexible working. The effect of the Act was to reduce the impact of mothers’ sleep duration on labour market outcomes, with a 6 percentage points lower probability that mothers drop out of the labour force.

My only criticism of this paper is that the copy-editing is pretty poor! There are so many things in this study that are interesting in their own right but also signal need for further research. Unsurprisingly, the study identifies gender inequalities. No wonder men’s wages increase while women’s plateau. Personally, I don’t much care about labour market outcomes except insofar as they affect individuals’ well-being. Thanks to the impressive data set, the study can also show that the impact on women’s labour market outcomes is not simply a response to changing priorities with respect to work, implying that it is actually a problem. The study provides a lot of food for thought for policy-makers.

Health years in total: a new health objective function for cost-effectiveness analysis. Value in Health Published 23rd December 2019

It’s common for me to complain about papers on this blog, usually in relation to one of my (many) pet peeves. This paper is in a different category. It’s dangerous. I’m angry.

The authors introduce the concept of ‘health years in total’. It’s a simple idea that involves separating the QA and the LY parts of the QALY in order to make quality of life and life years additive instead of multiplicative. This creates the possibility of attaching value to life years over and above their value in terms of the quality of life that is experienced in them. ‘Health years’ can be generated at a rate of two per year because each life year is worth 1 and that 1 is added to what the authors call a ‘modified QALY’. This ‘modified QALY’ is based on the supposition that the number of life years in its estimation corresponds to the maximum number of life years available under any treatment scenario being considered. So, if treatment A provides 2 life years and treatment B provides 3 life years, you multiply the quality of life value of treatment A by 3 years and then add the number of actual life years (i.e. 2). On the face of it, this is as stupid as it sounds.

So why do it? Well, some people don’t like QALYs. A cabal of organisations, supposedly representing patients, has sought to undermine the use of cost-effectiveness analysis. For whatever reason, they have decided to pursue the argument that the QALY discriminates against people with disabilities, or anybody else who happens to be unwell. Depending on the scenario this is either untrue or patently desirable. But the authors of this paper seem happy to entertain the cabal. The foundation for the development of the ‘health years in total’ framework is explicitly based in the equity arguments forwarded by these groups. It’s designed to be a more meaningful alternative to the ‘equal value of life’ measure; a measure that has been used in the US context, which adds a value of 1 to life years regardless of their quality.

The paper does a nice job of illustrating the ‘health years in total’ approach compared with the QALY approach and the ‘equal value of life’ approach. There’s merit in considering alternatives to the QALY model, and there may be value in an ‘additive’ approach that in some way separates the valuation of life years from the valuation of health states. There may even be some ethical justification for the ‘health years in total’ framework. But, if there is, it isn’t provided by this paper. To frame the QALY as discriminatory in the way that the authors do, describing this feature as a ‘limitation’ of the QALY approach, and to present an alternative with no basis in ethics is, at best, foolish. In practice, the ‘health years in total’ calculation would favour life-extending treatments over those that improve health. There are some organisations with vested interests in this. Expect to see ‘health years in total’ obscuring decision-making in the United States in the near future.

The causal effect of education on chronic health conditions in the UK. Journal of Health Economics Published 23rd December 2019

Since the dawn of health economics, researchers have been interested in the ways in which education and health outcomes depend on one another. People with more education tend to be healthier. But identifying causal relationships in this context is almost impossible. Some studies have claimed that education has a positive (causal) effect on both general and specific health outcomes. But there are just as many studies that show no impact. This study attempts to solve the problem by throwing a lot of data at it.

The authors analyse the impact of two sets of reforms in the UK. First, the raising of the school leaving age in 1972, from 15 to 16 years. Second, the broader set of reforms that were implemented in the 1990s that resulted in a major increase in the number of people entering higher education. The study’s weapon is the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS), which includes over 5 million observations from 1.5 million people. Part of the challenge of identifying the impact of education on health outcomes is that the effects can be expected to be observed over the long-term and can therefore be obscured by other long-term trends. To address this, the authors limit their analyses to people in narrow age ranges in correspondence with the times of the reforms. Thanks to the size of the data set, they still have more than 350,000 observations for each reform. The QLFS asks people to self-report having any of a set of 17 different chronic health conditions. These can be grouped in a variety of ways, or looked at individually. The analysis uses a regression discontinuity framework to test the impact of raising the school leaving age, with birth date acting as an instrument for the number of years spent in education. The analysis of the second reform is less precise, as there is no single discontinuity, so the model identifies variation between the relevant cohorts over the period. The models are used to test a variety of combinations of the chronic condition indicators.

In short, the study finds that education does not seem to have a causal effect on health, in terms of the number of chronic conditions or the probability of having any chronic condition. But, even with their massive data set, the authors cannot exclude the possibility that education does have an effect on health (whether positive or negative). This non-finding is consistent across both reforms and is robust to various specifications. There is one potentially important exception to this. Diabetes. Looking at the school leaving age reform, an additional year of schooling reduces the likelihood of having diabetes by 3.6 percentage points. Given the potential for diabetes to depend heavily on an individual’s behaviour and choices, this seems to make sense. Kids, stay in school. Just don’t do it for the good of your health.

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Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 14th October 2019

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.

Transparency in health economic modeling: options, issues and potential solutions. PharmacoEconomics [PubMed] Published 8th October 2019

Reading this paper was a strange experience. The purpose of the paper, and its content, is much the same as a paper of my own, which was published in the same journal a few months ago.

The authors outline what they see as the options for transparency in the context of decision modelling, with a focus on open source models and a focus on for whom the details are transparent. Models might be transparent to a small number of researchers (e.g. in peer review), to HTA agencies, or to the public at large. The paper includes a figure showing the two aspects of transparency, termed ‘reach’ and ‘level’, which relate to the number of people who can access the information and the level of detail made available. We provided a similar figure in our paper, using the terms ‘breadth’ and ‘depth’, which is at least some validation of our idea. The authors then go on to discuss five ‘issues’ with transparency: copyright, model misuse, confidential data, software, and time/resources. These issues are framed as questions, to which the authors posit some answers as solutions.

Perhaps inevitably, I think our paper does a better job, and so I’m probably over-critical of this article. Ours is more comprehensive, if nothing else. But I also think the authors make a few missteps. There’s a focus on models created by academic researchers, which oversimplifies the discussion somewhat. Open source modelling is framed as a more complete solution than it really is. The ‘issues’ that are discussed are at points framed as drawbacks or negative features of transparency, which they aren’t. Certainly, they’re challenges, but they aren’t reasons not to pursue transparency. ‘Copyright’ seems to be used as a synonym for intellectual property, and transparency is considered to be a threat to this. The authors’ proposed solution here is to use licensing fees. I think that’s a bad idea. Levying a fee creates an incentive to disregard copyright, not respect it.

It’s a little ironic that both this paper and my own were published, when both describe the benefits of transparency in terms of reducing “duplication of efforts”. No doubt, I read this paper with a far more critical eye than I normally would. Had I not published a paper on precisely the same subject, I might’ve thought this paper was brilliant.

If we recognize heterogeneity of treatment effect can we lessen waste? Journal of Comparative Effectiveness Research [PubMed] Published 1st October 2019

This commentary starts from the premise that a pervasive overuse of resources creates a lot of waste in health care, which I guess might be true in the US. Apparently, this is because clinicians have an insufficient understanding of heterogeneity in treatment effects and therefore assume average treatment effects for their patients. The authors suggest that this situation is reinforced by clinical trial publications tending to only report average treatment effects. I’m not sure whether the authors are arguing that clinicians are too knowledgable and dependent on the research, or that they don’t know the research well enough. Either way, it isn’t a very satisfying explanation of the overuse of health care. Certainly, patients could benefit from more personalised care, and I would support the authors’ argument in favour of stratified studies and the reporting of subgroup treatment effects. The most insightful part of this paper is the argument that these stratifications should be on the basis of observable characteristics. It isn’t much use to your general practitioner if personalisation requires genome sequencing. In short, I agree with the authors’ argument that we should do more to recognise heterogeneity of treatment effects, but I’m not sure it has much to do with waste.

No evidence for a protective effect of education on mental health. Social Science & Medicine Published 3rd October 2019

When it comes to the determinants of health and well-being, I often think back to my MSc dissertation research. As part of that, I learned that a) stuff that you might imagine to be important often isn’t and b) methodological choices matter a lot. Though it wasn’t the purpose of my study, it seemed from this research that higher education has a negative effect on people’s subjective well-being. But there isn’t much research out there to help us understand the association between education and mental health in general.

This study add to a small body of literature on the impact of changes in compulsory schooling on mental health. In (West) Germany, education policy was determined at the state level, so when compulsory schooling was extended from eight to nine years, different states implemented the change at different times between 1949 and 1969. This study includes 5,321 people, with 20,290 person-year observations, from the German Socio-Economic Panel survey (SOEP). Inclusion was based on people being born seven years either side of the cutoff birth year for which the longer compulsory schooling was enacted, with a further restriction to people aged between 50 and 85. The SOEP includes the SF-12 questionnaire, which includes a mental health component score (MCS). There is also an 11-point life satisfaction scale. The authors use an instrumental variable approach, using the policy change as an instrument for years of schooling and estimating a standard two-stage least squares model. The MCS score, life satisfaction score, and a binary indicator for MCS score lower than or equal to 45.6, are all modelled as separate outcomes.

Estimates using an OLS model show a positive and highly significant effect of years of schooling on all three outcomes. But when the instrumental variable model is used, this effect disappears. An additional year of schooling in this model is associated with a statistically and clinically insignificant decrease in the MCS score. Also insignificant was the finding that more years of schooling increases the likelihood of developing symptoms of a mental health disorder (as indicated by the MCS threshold of 45.6) and that life satisfaction is slightly lower. The same model shows a positive effect on physical health, which corresponds with previous research and provides some reassurance that the model could detect an effect if one existed.

The specification of the model seems reasonable and a host of robustness checks are reported. The only potential issue I could spot is that a person’s state of residence at the time of schooling is not observed, and so their location at entry into the sample is used. Given that education is associated with mobility, this could be a problem, and I would have liked to see the authors subject it to more testing. The overall finding – that an additional year of school for people who might otherwise only stay at school for eight years does not improve mental health – is persuasive. But the extent to which we can say anything more general about the impact of education on well-being is limited. What if it had been three years of additional schooling, rather than one? There is still much work to be done in this area.

Scientific sinkhole: the pernicious price of formatting. PLoS One [PubMed] Published 26th September 2019

This study is based on a survey that asked 372 researchers from 41 countries about the time they spent formatting manuscripts for journal submission. Let’s see how I can frame this as health economics… Well, some of the participants are health researchers. The time they spend on formatting journal submissions is time not spent on health research. The opportunity cost of time spent formatting could be measured in terms of health.

The authors focused on the time and wage costs of formatting. The results showed that formatting took a median time of 52 hours per person per year, at a cost of $477 per manuscript or $1,908 per person per year. Researchers spend – on average – 14 hours on formatting a manuscript. That’s outrageous. I have never spent that long on formatting. If you do, you only have yourself to blame. Or maybe it’s just because of what I consider to constitute formatting. The survey asked respondents to consider formatting of figures, tables, and supplementary files. Improving the format of a figure or a table can add real value to a paper. A good figure or table can change a bad paper to a good paper. I’d love to know how the time cost differed for people using LaTeX.

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