At a time when researchers around the world are racing to develop treatments to combat COVID-19, vaccination has become a crucial societal issue.
But a new study has revealed that there is relatively low confidence in vaccines globally, despite a slight improvement in some countries around the world.
The study, conducted by researchers at Imperial College London and published in medical journal the Lancet on Friday, draws these conclusions based on trends observed in 149 countries around the world between 2015 and 2019.
During this period, nearly 284,000 adults were surveyed and interviewed to find out how they felt about the safety, importance, and effectiveness of vaccines.
"Regularly monitoring national attitudes to vaccines is important to establish baseline levels of confidence in vaccines across the world, allowing us to identify early warning signals of losses of confidence," said Dr. Alex de Figueiredo, co-author of the research, at Imperial College London.
Vaccines are top of mind these days amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but vaccine hesitancy was listed among the top 10 threats to global health in 2019, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
When the level of confidence a given population has about vaccines is low, the spread of preventable diseases like polio, measles, and meningitis is boosted, according to Imperial College.
The results are encouraging in some areas, particularly in European countries. The study identified a slight improvement in confidence in vaccine safety in the UK, Ireland, Finland, and France, where confidence has been extremely low since 2015.
Conversely, a "worrying trend" has been observed in Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Serbia, which have seen substantial increases in people strongly disagreeing with the idea that vaccines are safe.
These countries are affected by political instability and religious extremism that foster negative attitudes towards vaccines, according to researchers.
Similarly, in Poland, 64% of respondents believed that vaccines were safe in November 2018, compared to only 53% in December 2019. Researchers attribute this drop in confidence to the "growing impact of a highly organized local anti-vaccine movement."
Low confidence in vaccine safety doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that their effectiveness is questioned, according to researchers. For example, there appears to be near unanimous agreement on the importance of immunization in countries like Iraq (95%), Liberia (93%), and Senegal (92%).
"Our findings suggest that people do not necessarily underestimate the importance of vaccinating their children even if they have doubts about the vaccine safety," said Dr. Clarissa Simas, co-principal author of the study.
While these results may be encouraging, they were identified before the emergence of COVID-19. Researchers therefore emphasized the need to identify negative trends early, in order to be able to counteract them in time to ensure that everyone can benefit from a COVID-19 vaccine when ready.
According to Simas, the medical community should seek to promote a climate of trust around the issue.
A new global study has already been launched to help identify potential barriers that may emerge in the effort to vaccinate everyone against COVID-19.
"Our monitoring also helps us to understand which countries and social groups may be reluctant to take a COVID-19 vaccine," added de Figueiredo. "We are now in the process of collecting data for many countries across the world to understand confidence in a COVID-19 vaccine."
"In the UK, we are interviewing over 15,000 people to map these attitudes to vaccines sub-nationally to identify local barriers to uptake," he added.
In the context of COVID-19, myths and misconceptions are rife online — to the extent that the situation has been referred to by the WHO as an "infodemic."