Upon request by the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, Mariano Votta, Director at the Active Citizenship Network (Rome, Italy), reflects on importance of vaccination for the public health:

In order to reduce the gap among EU Institutions and EU citizens in the field of healthcare, Active Citizenship Network, the EU branch of the Italian NGO Cittadinanzattiva, encouraged the formation of the  Interest Group of MEPs “European Patients’ Rights & Cross-Border Healthcare” wihin the European Parliament (EP).
This political initiative was launched in 2015 following the widespread request by almost 100 civic and patients’ organisations sent to the EP with an aim to officially recognise the value of citizens’ initiatives involved in the promotion of health as a common good. This approach is particularly relevant, when we have to face the challenges of life course vaccination.
Vaccination is one of the most important public health tools of the 20th century that led to several crucial goals, such as eradication of small pox, elimination of poliomyelitis in Europe and dramatic decrease of mortality and morbidity of communicable diseases. It is estimated that vaccination prevents 2.7 million cases of measles worldwide, 2 million cases of neonatal tetanus, and 1 million cases of pertussis each year. In Europe, seasonal influenza vaccination prevents around 2 million cases each year.
However, vaccination programmes are facing considerable challenges, such as decline in vaccination coverage in some countries, increasing cost of new vaccines, and shortages in supply. In addition, misconceptions about vaccination can further shift the public focus from the individual and collective benefits of vaccination to increased distrust and fear of possible side effects.
As underlined during the workshop “Seeking New Partnerships for EU Action on Vaccination”, organised by the EU Commission DG SANTE on 31 May 2017 in Brussels, one of the main factors contributing to a critical view to vaccination seems to be its success in reducing the burden of many vaccine preventable diseases in Europe. Indeed, as the incidence of the disease decreases, people’s perception of the risk associated with these diseases may also decrease, affecting in turn the perception of the perceived value of vaccines. Furthermore, misconceptions about side effects of vaccines are leading to distrust and fear about their safety.
In this challenging and complex environment, there is a clear added value in involving all the stakeholders within and outside the EU in working with global partners to ensure the sustainability and effectiveness of vaccination programmes.
How can citizens play a greater role in protecting themselves against vaccine-preventable diseases? For sure, vaccination is not intended only for patients but for the whole population, as a citizen right.
Indeed, vaccination is a right and an extraordinary instrument of public health, which must be known, valued, disseminated, and used well in the interest of individuals and the community. All EU member states recommend vaccination against serious, sometimes life-threatening diseases. The scientific evidence is clear, so we need to build on those findings. However, some vaccines remain under-valued and under-used, and an increasing number of parents and patients are choosing to delay or refuse vaccines. Widespread vaccine hesitancy has become a worrying phenomenon due to the range of health-related consequences it causes in the member states.
Probably it was forgotten that vaccination is also correlated with duties and responsibilities: Be active on vaccines is our message.
Is the citizens’ right to be adequately informed about it guaranteed? It is necessary to work to contribute to increase a vaccination culture. Institutions have not probably invested enough resources for too long, and now we have to face the consequences.
Recent epidemiological data on the situation of vaccination in the member states shows a significant drop in the use of vaccines. For instance, Europe experienced a 4-fold increase in measles cases in 2017 compared to previous year. And the highest numbers of affected people were reported in Romania (5,562), Italy (5,006), and Ukraine (4,767).
As the vaccination is arguably one of the most powerful and cost-effective types of primary prevention available for protection against a number of diseases, we strongly believe that adopting a life course approach to vaccination may help maximise the benefits of vaccination for individuals, public health, and society in general.
As mentioned in the Open Public Consultation “Strengthened Cooperation against Vaccine Preventable Diseases” launched by the DG SANTE, vaccine-preventable diseases are major health scourges. Due to their cross-border nature and the challenges to national vaccination programmes, there is a need for a common EU action and more coordinated approaches to limit the spread of epidemics and cross-border diseases. There is a clear added value to strengthen cooperation among all relevant actors at the EU level, including health authorities, the vaccine industry, research and innovation, the healthcare sector, and others.
As a member of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, the Active Citizenship Network would like to remind of the decisive role of the civil society, citizens’ organisations, and the advocacy groups in this challenge. We believe that their contribution to the European Vaccine Action Plan and to the EU Joint Action for Vaccination is crucial.
We strongly invite the EU Commission to adopt this inclusive approach, as it is going to  adopt a proposal for a Council recommendations on strengthened cooperation against vaccine-preventable diseases within the next months.
At the same time, we encourage the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum and its members to be active on vaccines! In 2018, the Active Citizenenship Network will organise a European training on the topic of life course vaccination, which will be open for representatives of civil and patients’ associations from EU member states. The aim is to make a contribution to empowering citizens to protect their health and increasing awareness about the benefits of the life course vaccination, for individuals and for the society as a whole.
We kindly invite members of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum to join this important event and our initiative.