Life Sciences Public Policy

March 6, 2018

European Union Vaccination Policy – What should the EU do?


Against a backdrop of major warnings of measles outbreaks across Europe from the World Health Organisation, vaccination policy across the EU has been brought starkly into the political spotlight.

Candidates for the 2018 Italian general election, scrambling to deliver a clear message on the matter, have taken differing stances. A new Italian law, known as the ‘Lorenzin Law’, introduced ten mandatory, free vaccinations for preschool and school children. The Democratic Party and Forza Italia political parties champion the ‘Lorenzin Law’ while the right-wing Northern League and the Five Star Movement call for immunizations to be left to parents’ discretion, regardless of WHO warnings on measles outbreaks.

France has followed in Italian legal footsteps and made 11 vaccinations mandatory from 1st January 2018. French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe stated it is unacceptable children are still dying of measles in a country which pioneered the earliest vaccinations. Indeed, south west France has been recently hit by a measles epidemic, with 269 confirmed cases and 66 hospital admissions from measles since November in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region. Even more worrying, the region’s vaccination rate of 70-81% is well below the WHO’s recommended rate of 95% to deal with the epidemic.

Despite the fact that vaccination has helped totally eradicate some diseases such as smallpox and contain many others, many Europeans still mistrust them. Media controversies, political propaganda and the spread of fake news have fuelled such hesitance of vaccines. Even long-discredited research fraud linking the measles, mumps, and rubella ‘MMR’ vaccine to autism has helped fuel widespread vaccine scepticism. Consequently, low levels of public confidence in vaccines have posed an increasingly large barrier to immunisation rates and raised the risk of contagious diseases spreading across Europe.

Does the EU want to play a role in this issue?

The European Commission is currently exploring ways for Member States to work together on immunizations. European vaccination policy relies heavily upon national authorities, but Brussels does have power to shape cross-border practices. President Jean-Claude Juncker underlined the importance attributed to the issue in his State of the EU address, in which vaccination was the only aspect of health policy mentioned. According to Juncker’s White Paper, vaccines hold a significant position in EU political debate and policies, and a proposal for a Council Recommendation on national vaccination policies is expected in the coming months.

Juncker echoed Édouard Philippe when commenting on measles epidemics in Italy and Romania: “It is unacceptable that in 2017 there are still children dying of diseases that should long have been eradicated in Europe … This is why we are working with all Member States to support national vaccination efforts.”

What can the EU do to tackle vaccine hesitance across Europe?

Epidemics are by definition cross-border threats and no single country can cope with them alone. Within the European Union, vaccination policy differs, and decreasing immunization coverage in one country represents a shared threat to other European countries – in 2017, measles cases across Europe increased 4-fold on 2016 levels.

The Article 168 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) notes that EU action is in place to complement Member States’ policies. For vaccination, this extends to coordinated policies for monitoring, warnings, and combating serious cross-border threats to health. Additionally, centrally organised vaccination schedules, aligned across EU states, could help restore trust and confidence in immunisation programs.

Furthermore, effective messaging from the EU can tackle vaccine reluctance, especially through increased digitalization and information sharing. For example, responsive communications from EU sources could help counter anti-vaccination myths and misinformation messages on social media and other channels.

While some Member States policies are falling short, there are several areas where the EU can and should act:

  • The EU could strengthen monitoring to better assess the benefits of vaccines (as well as potential risks) and infectious disease patterns. An effective EU data collection system, which could be coordinated by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, would also provide much-needed support to national immunisation strategies.
  • Second, the European Commission should investigate the causes of vaccine hesitance and put in place policy programs to increase awareness by enhancing fact-based information about vaccination.

Many stakeholders look forward to the Council Recommendation, but there is still much work to be done. For many companies and organisations, the Recommendation offers an opportunity to prepare policy solutions to the EU’s drive to coordinate national policies to build an effective European Union vaccination policy.