A majority of Irish people are unaware that several diseases, including hepatitis, measles and tetanus, are still causing death in Europe, according to an EU study.
A survey commissioned by the European Commission also revealed that one in 10 Irish respondents question the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing infectious diseases.
A similar proportion said they did not believe that vaccines were rigorously tested before being authorised for use. More than 27,500 individuals across the 28 EU states, including 1,078 in Ireland, were questioned about their attitude towards vaccines.
The results showed that a majority of Irish respondents correctly identified that meningitis and flu are fatal diseases. However, only 43% believed that measles was a potentially fatal infection, and only 41% that hepatitis was. The figure for tetanus was 17%.
According to medical research, immunisation through vaccination is the best defence against serious and potentially fatal diseases that are also preventable, such as diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, tuberculosis, polio, measles, and hepatitis B.
However, the European Commission, as well as national governments and medical professionals, is concerned about falling vaccination levels, driven in part by anti-vaccination campaigners.
Health Minister Simon Harris is seeking legal advice on whether requiring children to have mandatory vaccines before attending schools or creches would be constitutional.
While Europe has been polio-free since 2002, there were 89 cases of tetanus in the EU in 2017, of which 14 were fatal. Between February 2018 and January 2019, there were 12,266 cases of measles within the EU, of which 33 were fatal.
In 2016, there were 304 fatalities, arising out of 3,280 confirmed cases of invasive meningococcal disease, across the 30 EU/EEA member states.
A European Commission spokesperson said:
While the European Commission said the results were positive, in that 85% of EU citizens believed vaccination is an effective way of preventing infectious diseases, it said it is “worrying” that 48% of Europeans incorrectly believed that vaccines often produce side-effects, while 38% thought vaccines can cause the diseases against which they protect.
The survey showed that 7% of Irish respondents have not had any vaccination in the past five years, because they think vaccines aren’t safe and can have side-effects — slightly below the EU average of 9%.
More than half — 57% — incorrectly stated that vaccines often produce serious side-effects.
The Eurobarometer survey showed that 17% of Irish respondents disagreed that it was important for everyone to have routine vaccinations, while 13% disagreed that not being vaccinated could lead to serious health issues.
While the vaccination policy is an issue for national authorities, the EU is taking action to strengthen cooperation, with a target of achieving a 95% vaccination coverage rate, including targeted outreach for vulnerable groups.