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.


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.


Shilpi Swami’s journal round-up for 9th December 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.

Performance of UK National Health Service compared with other high-income countries: observational study. BMJ [PubMed] Published 27th November 2019

Efficiencies and inefficiencies of the NHS in the UK have been debated in recent years. This new study reveals the performance of the NHS compared to other high-income countries, based on observational data, and has already caught a bunch of attention (almost 3,000 tweets and 6 news appearances, since publication)!

The authors presented a descriptive analysis of the UK (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales) compared to nine other countries (US, Canada, Germany, Australia, Sweden, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Switzerland) based on aggregated recent data from a range of sources (such as OECD, World Bank, the Institute for Health Metrics Evaluation, and Eurostat). Good things first; access to care – a lower proportion of people felt unmet needs owing to costs. The waiting times were comparable across other countries, except for specialist care. The UK performed slightly better on the metric of patient safety. The main challenge, however, is that NHS healthcare spending is lower and has been growing more slowly. This means fewer doctors and nurses, and doctors spending less time with patients. The authors vividly suggest that

“Policy makers should consider how recent changes to nursing bursaries, the weakened pound, and uncertainty about the status of immigrant workers in the light of the Brexit referendum result have influenced these numbers and how to respond to these challenges in the future.”

Understandably comparing healthcare systems across the world is difficult. Including the US in the study, and not including other countries like Spain and Japan, may need more justification or could be a scope of future research.

To be fair, the article is a not-to-miss read. It is an eye-opener for those who think it’s only a (too much) demand-side problem the the NHS is facing and confirms the perspective of those who think it’s a (not enough) supply-side problem. Kudos to the hardworking doctors and nurses who are currently delivering efficiently in the stretched situation! For sustainability, the NHS needs to consider increasing its spending to increase labour supply and long-term care.

A systematic review of methods to predict weight trajectories in health economic models of behavioral weight management programs: the potential role of psychosocial factors. Medical Decision Making [PubMed] Published 2nd December 2019

In economic modelling, assumptions are often made about the long-term impact of interventions, and it’s important that these assumptions are based on sound evidence and/or tested in sensitivity analysis, as these could affect the cost-effectiveness results.

The authors explored assumptions about weight trajectories to inform economic modelling of behavioural weight management programmes. Also, they checked their evidence sources, and whether these assumptions were based on any psychosocial variables (such as self-regulation, motivation, self-efficacy, and habit), as these are known to be associated with weight-loss trajectories.

The authors conducted a systematic literature review of economic models of weight management interventions that aimed at reducing weight. In the 38 studies included, they found 6 types of assumptions of weight trajectories beyond trial duration (weight loss maintained, weight loss regained immediately, linear weight regain, subgroup-specific trajectories, exponential decay of effect, maintenance followed by regain), with only 15 of the studies reporting sources for these assumptions. The authors also elaborated on the assumptions and graphically represented them. Psychosocial variables were, in fact, measured in evidence sources of some of the included studies. However, the authors found that none of the studies estimated their weight trajectory assumptions based on these! Though the article also reports on how the assumptions were tested in sensitivity analyses and their impact on results in the studies (if reported within these studies), it would have been interesting to see more insights into this. The authors feel that there’s a need to investigate how psychosocial variables measured in trials can be used within health economic models to calculate weight trajectories and, thus, to improve the validity of cost-effectiveness estimates.

To me, given that only around half of included studies reported sources of assumptions on long-term effects of the interventions and performed sensitivity analysis on these assumptions, it raises the bigger long-debated question on the quality of economic evaluations! To conclude, the review is comprehensive and insightful. It is an interesting read and will be especially useful for those interested in modelling long-term impacts of behavioural support programs.

The societal monetary value of a QALY associated with EQ‐5D‐3L health gains. The European Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] Published 28th November 2019

Finding an estimate of the societal monetary value of a QALY (MVQALY) is mostly performed to inform a range of thresholds for accurately guiding cost-effectiveness decisions.

This study explores the degree of variation in the societal MVQALY based on a large sample of the population in Spain. It uses a discrete choice experiment and a time trade-off exercise to derive a value set for utilities, followed by a willingness to pay questionnaire. The study reveals that the societal values for a QALY, corresponding to different EQ-5D-3L health gains, vary approximately between €10,000 and €30,000. Ironically, the MVQALY associated with larger improvements on QoL was found to be lower than with moderate QoL gains, meaning that WTP is less than proportional to the size of the QoL improvement. The authors further explored whether budgetary restrictions could be a reason for this by analysing responses of individuals with higher income and found out that it may somewhat explain this, but not fully. As this, at face value, implies there should be a lower cost per QALY threshold for interventions with largest improvement of health than with moderate improvements, it raises a lot of questions and forces you to interpret the findings with caution. The authors suggest that the diminishing MVQALY is, at least partly, produced by the lack of sensitivity of WTP responses.

Though I think that the article does not provide a clear take-home message, it makes the readers re-think the very underlying norms of estimating monetary values of QALYs. The study eventually raises more questions than providing answers but could be useful to further explore areas of utility research.