Measles outbreaks in Europe: Vaccine-preventable tragedies

Why we urgently need common strategies to combat infectious diseases

, by Bastian De Monte, Tobias Gerhard Schminke

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

Measles outbreaks in Europe: Vaccine-preventable tragedies
In 2017, 35 Europeans died because they were not vaccinated. Copyright: Flickr / Pan American Health Organization PAHO Licence: Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The WHO recently reported that measles cases spike globally. Compared to the previous year, the number of new infections had quadrupled in 2017: More than 20,000 people in Europe fell ill with measles, 35 of whom died, numerous late complications have since been observed – because of a disease which should have been eradicated a long time ago. What are the underlying reasons? Which obstacles do we have to overcome in Europe and which solutions are thinkable? With the anti-vax movement surging in the age of disinformation, The New Federalist would like to recall an interview conducted by our sister edition Treffpunkt Europa with Steffen Künzel, medical student in Bonn and founder of “Impf Dich – Get Vaccinated”, an initiative aimed at bolstering vaccination rates in Germany.

Treffpunkt Europa: You started the initiative “Impf Dich – Get Vaccinated” at the beginning of 2018. What motivated you to do so?

Steffen Künzel: The idea originated in my circle of friends which mainly consists of pharmacists, physicians and students in that field. I don’t know a single person with medical background who hasn’t been confronted with wrong and unscientific statements about vaccines. This resulted in individual talks and discussions which eventually led to this movement. We don’t want to missionise but rather rectify what’s being said.

The reason I’m personally engaging is that – despite not having suffered myself from poliomyelitis, meningitis or tetanus and gladly also not knowing anyone here in Europe who did – I have seen these diseases with my own eyes in other parts of the world. I know what harm they can cause and there is no cheaper and simpler measure to prevent such diseases than vaccines. There’s a reason we named our school campaign ‘Little Sting With Great Effects’.

Treffpunkt Europa: In your presentations, you stress that it is more important than ever to raise awareness for this topic and encourage people to get vaccinated. Why?

Steffen Künzel: In the age of fake news and when high-level politicians denounce science, it is even more important to stand up for rightful and evidence-based facts and throw these into the debate. Additionally, people are more mobile, they travel and migrate – some of whom haven’t been vaccinated as rates are dropping. Regions free from certain infections can become more dangerous again. We also need to overcome regional disparities within our borderless Europe.

On the positive side, never before have we had a better understanding of the human immune system and vaccines are not only safer but also more potent in their effect. We should spread those news and present research in an understandable way. Digital solutions will be another helpful tool in the future, from email/text reminders to the patient, over planning on the part of the pharma industry and pharmacists, to the final sting at the doctor’s office.

It is imperative to develop international strategies, harmonise schemes and bring about global herd immunity in the long term. This could come with desirable side-effects, such as cheaper vaccines due to common and larger-scale procurement as well as more research on this topic. I hope we can muster our “European herd” for this common goal.

Treffpunkt Europa: Do you support the idea of Europe-wide obligatory vaccination?

Steffen Künzel: As I wholeheartedly support vaccination, I would be open for that. In France, for instance, all children have to be vaccinated against eleven diseases within the first two years of their lives. The system works – also in Italy, Belgium, Croatia and others. One should also not forget that vaccination against smallpox was mandatory in Germany – the country was then declared pox-free in the mid-70s. On the contrary, the goal to eradicate measles has not been achieved by the WHO and in my opinion, we won’t be able to do so without mandatory vaccination.

Yet, I do understand and accept that some people oppose compulsory physical intervention. I am convinced we can increase vaccination coverage simply by better education. And the creation of a common vaccination scheme would be a first step towards comprehensive eradication of preventable diseases in Europe.

What I oppose, however, are punitive measures such as exclusion from public kindergartens or fines, as they rather constitute punishment for the children, not their ignorant parents. An entry ban for unvaccinated people, as seen in South America for instance, should be discussed, however.

Treffpunkt Europa: You keep mentioning measles, why is that?

Steffen Künzel: I could name numerous examples but measles epitomise our problems in Europe. Blinded by our previous success, we’ve lost the respect for diseases which have become rare, eventually leading to ‘vaccination laziness’ and resulting in new outbreaks.

The danger they pose is also underestimated. A common misbelief is that measles are harmless and doctors can help with their serious complications, one of them being subacute sclerosing panencephalitis which is lethal and which we have no cure for.

Vaccination is not only for individual protection but especially for those who cannot be vaccinated themselves (herd protection), i.e. pregnant women, patients with cancer or immune suppression and elderly people. Vaccination is a social responsibility. We should really start to take better care of each other in Europe. Let’s start right here.

Treffpunkt Europa: What are your initiative’s concrete measures to raise vaccination rates?

Steffen Künzel: Our key means are education and campaigning. Even the European Parliament has realised the need for more transparency between experts and the general population. In my experience, the majority of people is actually receptive to arguments and facts. But these need to be delivered – be it during a presentation in middle school, at a refugee camp or during a talk with your pharmacist. For us it’s important to be neutral and correct. Vaccines can have side effects but, as studies show, these are just rare and small.

Another reason for ‘vaccination laziness’ is bureaucracy: waiting at the doctor’s office, waiting for the delivery of certain vaccines, only to wait again at the doctor’s office. And just imagine losing your vaccination card… But for this, we’re developing online solutions to make everything less complicated. One tool already available on our webpage is the “Vaccination Card Reader” and it is pretty simple: 1. take a photo of the card 2. upload it (also anonymously) 3. indicate your birth year. A few days later, the individual is informed via email whether they’re protected or need to get vaccinated.

Treffpunkt Europa: What is your target group?

Steffen Künzel: Generally everyone. But especially with the online content and at school events, we’re reaching young people and rather those who are not entirely opposed to immunisation. And it should not be forgotten that the majority of those who are unvaccinated are not in principle against it. They are not doing it because they don’t understand the importance of it, or because of the efforts required. Anti-vaxxers are a relatively small group, they just shout the loudest.

Treffpunkt Europa: As you imply, not everyone is open to your arguments. How do you deal with those people?

Steffen Künzel: The topic is polarising and emotional. We regularly have to deal with spam on our Facebook page or insults, which also happens on the street. Conspiracy, superstition or anti- system sentiment – I can’t tell what’s moving those people. The worst is not them not being vaccinated, though, but that they are intentionally spreading false information.

I’m generally not a fan of insulting or ignoring others just because they have a different opinion but rather talk to them and argue science-based. Not all are open for that and I personally haven’t found a way to counter that. But I also don’t always have to have the last word and will sometimes just let them talk about autism and homeopathic vaccination.

Treffpunkt Europa: Speaking of which, homeopathic treatments are partly covered by health insurances in Europe. What is your opinion on this?

Steffen Künzel: The original theories by Samuel Hahnemann have been corrupted in this context. While I don’t completely oppose homeopathy in medicine, I can say there is definitely no place for it in the field of vaccination.

Treffpunkt Europa: Any concluding remarks and recommendations for Europeans?

Steffen Künzel: Get vaccinated, discuss the topic using science-backed facts and support vaccination campaigns worldwide.

Tobias Gerhard Schminke’s original interview has been edited by Bastian De Monte in the interest of brevity and clarity.

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