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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Agent relationships and information asymmetries in public health

The agent relationship and information asymmetry are two features of healthcare economics – but how do they apply to public health policy around processed foods?

Why is health different to other goods?

Arrow’s 1963 seminal paper helped lay the foundations for health economics as a discipline. The Nobel-winning economist talks about what makes healthcare different to other types of market goods. Two of the principal things are agent relationship – that a clinician often makes choices on behalf of a patient (Arrow calls them a “controlling agent”); and information asymmetry – that a clinician knows more than the patient (“informational inequality”). Whereas if someone is buying a new car, they make their own choices, and they might read up on the extensive information available so that they are reasonably knowledgeable about what to buy. These two factors have evolved and possibly diminished over time, especially among highly educated people in developed countries; people often have more choice over their treatment options, and some people have become ‘expert patients‘. Patients may no longer believe that the Götter in Weiß (Gods dressed in white) always know best.

Agent relationship and information asymmetry are features of healthcare economics but they also apply to public health economics. But where people accept clinicians as having more knowledge or acting as their agent, people don’t always accept advice on food from public health policy makers in the same way. People may think, “well I know how to buy a bottle of beer, or a can of coke, or a pizza”, and may not see any potential information asymmetry. Some of it might be ‘akrasia’ – they know that food is unhealthy, but they eat it anyway because it is delicious! However, few people may be aware that poor diet and obesity are the biggest risk factors for ill health and mortality in England.

People might ask “why should a nanny state agent make my food or drink decisions for me?” Of course, this is ignoring the fact that processed food companies might be making those decisions, and reinforcing them using huge marketing budgets. Consumers see government influences but they don’t always see the other information asymmetry and agent relationship; the latent power structures that drive their behaviours – from the food, drinks, alcohol industry, etc. Unsustainable food systems that promote obesity and poor health might be an example of market failure or a tragedy of the commons. The English food system has not moved on enough from post-world war 2 rationing, where food security was the major concern; it still has an objective to maximise calorie supply across the population, rather than maximise population health.

Some of the big UK misselling scandals like mortgage PPI are asymmetries. You could argue that processed foods (junk food high in salt, sugar and saturated fats) might be missold because producers try to misrepresent the true mix of ingredients – for example, many advertisements for processed foods try to misrepresent their products by showing lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. Even though processed foods might have ingredients listed, people have an information asymmetry (or at least, a deficit around information processing) around truly understanding the amount of hidden salt and sugars, because they may assume that the preparation process is similar to a familiar home cooked method. In the US there have been several lawsuits from consumers alleging that companies have misled them by promoting products as being wholesome and natural when they are in fact loaded with added sugars.

The agent relationship and information asymmetry as applied to food policy and health.

How acceptable are public health policies?

A 2012 UK poll carried out by YouGov, funded by the Adam Smith Institute (a right wing free market think tank), found that 22% of people in England thought that the government should tell people what to eat and drink, and 44% thought the government should not. Does this indicate a lack of respect for public health as a specialism? But telling people what to eat and drink is not the same as enacting structural policies to improve foods. Research has shown that interventions like reducing salt in processed foods in the UK or added sugar labelling in the US could be very cost effective. There has been some progress with US and UK programmes like the sugary drinks industry levy, which now has a good level of public support. But voluntary initiatives like the UK sugar reduction programme have been less effective, which may be because they are weakly enforced, and not ambitious enough.

A recent UK study used another YouGov survey to assess the public acceptability of behavioural ‘nudge’ interventions around tobacco, alcohol, and high-calorie snack foods. It compared four types of nudges: labelling (adding graphic warning labels to products); size (reducing pack size of snacks, serving size for alcohol, and number of cigarettes in packets for tobacco); tax (increasing the price to consumers); and availability (banning sales from corner shops). This study found that labelling was the most acceptable policy, then size, tax, and availability. It found that targeting tobacco use was more acceptable than targeting alcohol or food. Acceptability was lower in people who participated in the relevant behaviour regularly, i.e. smokers, heavy drinkers, frequent snackers.

What should public health experts do?

Perhaps public health experts need to do more to enhance their reputation with the public. But when they are competing with a partnership between right wing think tanks, the media and politicians, all funded by big food, tobacco and alcohol, it is difficult for public health experts to get their message out. Perhaps it falls to celebrities and TV chefs like Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to push for healthy (and often more sustainable) food policy, or fiscal measures to internalise the externalities around unhealthy foods. The food industry falls back on saying that obesity is complex, exercise is important as well as diet, and more research is needed. They are right that obesity is complex, but there is enough evidence to act. There is good evidence for an ‘equity effectiveness hierarchy‘ where policy-level interventions are more effective at a population level, and more likely to reduce inequalities between rich and poor, than individual, agentic interventions. This means that individual education and promoting exercise may not be as effective as national policy interventions around food.

The answer to these issues may be in doing more to reduce information asymmetries by educating the public about what is in processed food, starting with schools. At the same time understanding that industries are not benevolent; they have an agent relationship in deciding what is in the foods that arrive at our tables, and the main objectives for their shareholders are that food is cheap, palatable, and with a long shelf life. Healthy comes lower on the list of priorities. Government action is needed to set standards for foods or make unhealthy foods more expensive and harder to buy on impulse, and restrict marketing, as previously done with other harmful commodities such as tobacco.

In conclusion, there are hidden agent relationships and information asymmetries around public health policies, for instance around healthy food and drinks. Public health can potentially learn from economic instruments that have been used in other industries to mitigate information asymmetries and agent relationships. If Government and the food industry had shared incentives to create a healthier population then good things might happen. I would be curious to know what others think about this!

Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 18th November 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.

A conceptual map of health-related quality of life dimensions: key lessons for a new instrument. Quality of Life Research [PubMed] Published 1st November 2019

EQ-5D, SF-6D, HUI3, AQoL, 15D; they’re all used to describe health states for the purpose of estimating health state utility values, to get the ‘Q’ in the QALY. But it’s widely recognised (and evidenced) that they measure different things. This study sought to better understand the challenge by doing two things: i) ‘mapping’ the domains of the different instruments and ii) advising on the domains to be included in a new measure.

The conceptual model described in this paper builds on two standard models of health – the ICF (International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health), which is endorsed by the WHO, and the Wilson and Cleary model. The new model is built around four distinctions, which can be used to define the dimensions included in health state utility instruments: cause vs effect, specific vs broad, physical vs psychological, and subjective vs objective. The idea is that each possible dimension of health can relate, with varying levels of precision, to one or the other of these alternatives.

The authors argue that, conveniently, cause/effect and specific/broad map to one another, as do physical/psychological and objective/subjective. The framework is presented visually, which makes it easy to interpret – I recommend you take a look. Each of the five instruments previously mentioned is mapped to the framework, with the HUI and 15D coming out as ‘symptom’ oriented, EQ-5D and SF-6D as ‘functioning’ oriented, and the AQoL as a hybrid of a health and well-being instrument. Based (it seems) on the Personal Wellbeing Index, the authors also include two social dimensions in the framework, which interact with the health domains. Based on the frequency with which dimensions are included in existing instruments, the authors recommend that a new measure should include three physical dimensions (mobility, self-care, pain), three mental health dimensions (depression, vitality, sleep), and two social domains (personal relationships, social isolation).

This framework makes no sense to me. The main problem is that none of the four distinctions hold water, let alone stand up to being mapped linearly to one another. Take pain as an example. It could be measured subjectively or objectively. It’s usually considered a physical matter, but psychological pain is no less meaningful. It may be a ‘causal’ symptom, but there is little doubt that it matters in and of itself as an ‘effect’. The authors themselves even offer up a series of examples of where the distinctions fall down.

It would be nice if this stuff could be drawn-up on a two-dimensional plane, but it isn’t that simple. In addition to oversimplifying complex ideas, I don’t think the authors have fully recognised the level of complexity. For instance, the work seems to be inspired – at least in part – by a desire to describe health state utility instruments in relation to subjective well-being (SWB). But the distinction between health state utility instruments and SWB isn’t simply a matter of scope. Health state utility instruments (as we use them) are about valuing states in relation to preferences, whereas SWB is about experienced utility. That’s a far more important and meaningful distinction than the distinction between symptoms and functioning.

Careless costs related to inefficient technology used within NHS England. Clinical Medicine Journal [PubMed] Published 8th November 2019

This little paper – barely even a single page – was doing the rounds on Twitter. The author was inspired by some frustration in his day job, waiting for the IT to work. We can all relate to that. This brief analysis sums the potential costs of what the author calls ‘careless costs’, which is vaguely defined as time spent by an NHS employee on activity that does not relate to patient care. Supposing that all doctors in the English NHS wasted an average of 10 minutes per day on such activities, it would cost over £143 million (per year, I assume) based on current salaries. The implication is that a little bit of investment could result in massive savings.

This really bugs me, for at least two reasons. First, it is normal for anybody in any profession to have a bit of downtime. Nobody operates at maximum productivity for every minute of every day. If the doctor didn’t have their downtime waiting for a PC to boot, it would be spent queuing in Costa, or having a nice relaxed wee. Probably both. Those 10 minutes that are displaced cannot be considered equivalent in value to 10 minutes of patient contact time. The second reason is that there is no intervention that can fix this problem at little or no cost. Investments cost money. And if perfect IT systems existed, we wouldn’t all find these ‘careless costs’ so familiar. No doubt, the NHS lags behind, but the potential savings of improvement may very well be closer to zero than to the estimates in this paper.

When it comes to clinical impacts, people insist on being able to identify causal improvements from clearly defined interventions or changes. But when it comes to costs, too many people are confident in throwing around huge numbers of speculative origin.

Socioeconomic disparities in unmet need for student mental health services in higher education. Applied Health Economics and Health Policy [PubMed] Published 5th November 2019

In many countries, the size of the student population is growing, and this population seems to have a high level of need for mental health services. There are a variety of challenges in this context that make it an interesting subject for health economists to study (which is why I do), including the fact that universities are often the main providers of services. If universities are going to provide the right services and reach the right people, a better understanding of who needs what is required. This study contributes to this challenge.

The study is set in the context of higher education in Ireland. If you have no idea how higher education is organised in Ireland, and have an interest in mental health, then the Institutional Context section of this paper is worth reading in its own right. The study reports on findings from a national survey of students. This analysis is a secondary analysis of data collected for the primary purpose of eliciting students’ preferences for counselling services, which has been described elsewhere. In this paper, the authors report on supplementary questions, including measures of psychological distress and use of mental health services. Responses from 5,031 individuals, broadly representative of the population, were analysed.

Around 23% of respondents were classified as having unmet need for mental health services based on them reporting both a) severe distress and b) not using services. Arguably, it’s a sketchy definition of unmet need, but it seems reasonable for the purpose of this analysis. The authors regress this binary indicator of unmet need on a selection of sociodemographic and individual characteristics. The model is also run for the binary indicator of need only (rather than unmet need).

The main finding is that people from lower social classes are more likely to have unmet need, but that this is only because these people have a higher level of need. That is, people from less well-off backgrounds are more likely to have mental health problems but are no less likely to have their need met. So this is partly good news and partly bad news. It seems that there are no additional barriers to services in Ireland for students from a lower social class. But unmet need is still high and – with more inclusive university admissions – likely to grow. Based on the analyses, the authors recommend that universities could reach out to male students, who have greater unmet need.

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