NEW YORK – Japan’s envoy to the United Nations joined forces with the head of UNICEF on Friday to push the world to make sure as many children as possible are vaccinated against potentially fatal diseases amid a rise in misinformation about immunization programs.
“Ensuring and scaling up immunization coverage is one of the cornerstones of primary health care and an important entry point for UHC (universal health coverage),” Ambassador Koro Bessho said at a panel discussion, calling it “a key priority of Japan’s own UHC system as well as its foreign assistance.”
He made the remarks against the backdrop of concerns about the resurgence of diseases such as measles in nations where it had been eliminated. The total number of cases worldwide has tripled over the last year, according to a new UNICEF report, where there were 168,000 cases reported in May this year, compared to 51,000 cases the year before.
Bessho said Japan is in the midst of negotiating a document ahead of a high-level meeting on universal health coverage to take place in New York in September.
“Japan is concerned by misinformation and misperception of polio vaccinations which have resulted in vaccine refusals at this very critical time when a polio free world is near” but not “coming to the final stage because of this,” Bessho said.
Henrietta Fore, UNICEF’s executive director, raised concerns about the approximately 20 million infants who are not vaccinated.
“We must work together — as one — to combat misinformation, build trust in vaccines and vaccination programs, and improve quality of care to give every child, everywhere, the lifesaving gift of immunization,” she said.
Fore identified concerns about an “alarming spike” in measles in countries like Brazil, Madagascar, the Philippines and Ukraine. Those countries have had outbreaks over the last two years.
She also pointed to incidents in middle- and high-income countries, such as the United States, where some parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children.
“Like the diseases that vaccines prevent, misinformation about vaccines can spread fast,” Fore said. “The proliferation of information on digital media makes it increasingly difficult for parents to know which sources to trust when it comes to the benefits of immunization.”
She described an example in Pakistan — which is one of only three nations where polio still poses a threat. It was reported that in Peshawar a video went viral on social media, allegedly showing the ill effects of the polio vaccine, which scared people away from taking it.
Also part of the panel discussion was 18-year-old Ethan Lindenberger of the United States who has attracted national attention for going against his mother’s wishes by pursuing vaccines.
The Ohio high school student has spoken up about them and urged others in his generation to educate themselves.
Montserrat Cols Vidal, lab manager at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and one of the panel participants, said that vaccines are key because when a high proportion of the population is immunized, the ability of the pathogens to reproduce is disrupted and a “herd immunity” develops.
“Herd immunity is fundamental and people need to realize that by not giving all the shots to your children you are (putting) them, you and everyone around you in danger,” she said.