EU warns of bioterror and disease risk as vaccination rates fall

EU warns of bioterror and disease risk as vaccination rates fall

The EU will face threats from disease epidemics to bioterrorism if it fails to halt anti-vaccination trends driven in part by anti-establishment political movements, the bloc’s health commissioner has warned.

Vytenis Andriukaitis said there was a risk of social crises if countries fell victim to anti-inoculation “fake news” and lost the herd immunity of populations to common conditions such as measles. 

“It’s a very dangerous situation,” he said. “If we continue in such a spirit . . . in two or three years it will be very difficult to guarantee the security of our society.” 

EU health ministers are scheduled on Friday to debate European Commission proposals aimed at countering the trend, including electronic vaccination cards, counter-disinformation efforts and databases of emergency vaccine stockpiles.

The initiative comes as the EU is experiencing rising disease outbreaks, notably in Italy, where the populist government has reversed a compulsory vaccination programme introduced by the previous administration in response to a growing measles problem. 

Mr Andriukaitis, a Lithuanian cardiovascular surgeon, said some radical right- and leftwing movements in the EU had embraced conspiratorial anti-vaccination propaganda. That risked triggering “tragedy on the ground” because it would leave countries vulnerable to pandemics and even attacks by terrorists armed with pathogens. 

“It’s also a security issue — it’s not only a public health threat,” he said in an interview. “We have a really, really worrying situation in some countries.” 

Italy accounted for almost 30 per cent of measles cases in the EU and European Economic Area last year as outbreaks in the EU as a whole reached a seven-year high.

A report published by the commission in October and compiled by outside experts linked the problems to falling inoculation rates, with confidence in vaccines declining in a number of countries.

According to World Health Organisation estimates, inoculation rates for first doses of measles-containing vaccines such as MMR fell in 12 EU member states between 2010 and last year: Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

Mr Andriukaitis urged Italy to return to the mandatory vaccination law, which the previous government introduced in an effort to tackle the problem. The Italian Senate overturned it in August after an election pledge by the Five Star Movement and League coalition that took power this year.

The country was now in a “very difficult situation” that had left many parents “very confused” regarding vaccination, the commissioner said. 

“Now it’s up to Italian society to understand,” he said. “Are they really safer when they are in the hands of those who do not rely on evidence and on science?” 

Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Rally, has also raised concerns about vaccine safety.

Mr Andriukaitis said the proposed EU electronic vaccination card would allow authorities in different countries to see which immunisations people had received and to map potential disease vulnerabilities more effectively. He acknowledged that the plans had faced criticism from privacy and anti-vaccination campaigners. 

Officials hope ministers will sign off on the package since the measures are only recommendations, with health policy under the control of individual member states. However, this could limit its effectiveness if some countries choose not to join. 

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