The damage caused by anti-vaxxers is often reported in local terms: Measles parties in Minnesota. “The Disneyland Outbreak.” A Chickenpox comeback in North Carolina. But it’s all adding up. Thanks to misguided (to say the least) adherence to anti-vaxxing doctrine in the U.S. and around the world, the World Health Organization included “vaccine hesitancy” on its list of ten threats to global health in 2019.

Vaccine hesitancy is defined as “the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines.” The WHO says that if left unchecked, it could reverse the progress we’ve made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases, everything from influenza to HPV (which can lead to cervical cancer).

Immunization saves 2-3 million lives a year, but that number could be 3.5-4.5 million if access to vaccination, an extremely cost-effective way to avoid disease, improved.

Around the world, measles cases are up 30 percent, and some countries that were close to eliminating it have sadly seen increasing numbers of people infected. And while it’s impossible to put the blame entirely on vaccine hesitation, there’s no doubt that it’s contributing to its resurgence.

Vaccine hesitancy risks the health of people who choose (or have their parents choose) not to vaccinate and those who, for medical reasons like autoimmune disease, pregnancy, and allergies to vaccine ingredients. That’s the rub with vaccine hesitancy: herd immunity is a fragile thing, and even a small number of unvaccinated people in a given population can make it possible for disease to spread.

And it’s a shame. Vaccines are safe. The number of deaths vaccines have prevented is massively greater than the number of deaths they’ve caused. The vaccine-autism connection has been thoroughly debunked by people who actually know what they’re talking about.

To help ameliorate the problem, WHO is focusing on supporting health workers, the most trusted advisors and influencers of vaccine decisions. The organization is also working to eliminate cervical cancer around the world by increasing coverage of the HPV vaccine.

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