The discovery of vaccines is "one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine," but the global community is facing the dual challenges of giving everyone access to them and overcoming "vaccine hesitancy," especially when it is based on false information, said the Pontifical Academy for Life and the World Medical Association.
The academy and the association of national physicians' groups had been planning a major conference on vaccination in general when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. While the conference may take place in the future, the Pontifical Academy for Life, World Medical Association and German Medical Association held an online webinar July 1 to look specifically at the COVID-19 vaccine.
At the end of the meeting, the groups called on governments, pharmaceutical companies, religious groups and others to work together to "ensure equitable global access to vaccines, which is a key prerequisite for a successful global vaccination campaign, and to confront vaccine hesitancy by sending a clear message about the safety and necessity of vaccines and counteracting vaccine myths and disinformation."
Dr. Frank Ulrich Montgomery, chair of the council of the World Medical Association, told reporters July 2: "There is probably no other invention in medicine that has saved more lives and prevented more suffering than vaccination. We have eradicated smallpox, we are close to wiping polio off the surface of the earth, and deadly diseases like measles have lost their frightening appearance."
Yet, he said, with the COVID-19 vaccine "10 countries in the world have delivered 80% of the 3 billion given doses up to now."
While people in poorer nations, especially on behalf of their elderly and immune-compromised members, "cry out for help and ask for vaccines," Montgomery said, in other parts of the world "we see reluctance to get vaccinated and opposition to vaccination in general -- without any scientific evidence."
"Because we are so successful in preventing disease, people forget the terrorizing sights of large numbers of people dying in endemic or pandemic situations," he said. "This bring us into a most cynical position: whereas a child in a developing country is denied a safer life or even survival because its nation or its family cannot afford vaccinations, there is also a child in an affluent country that is denied the life-saving prevention because of the ignorance or reluctance of their parents."
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, academy president, told reporters at a Vatican news conference that even with the focus on ending the coronavirus pandemic, "we must prevent the COVID-19 pandemic from drawing all attention to itself to a point that it appears, albeit with valid reasons, as the most urgent."
"We must not forget, for example, that malaria and tuberculosis claim far more victims in Africa than COVID-19," he said, nor that the lack of basic necessities like sanitation and clean drinking water threaten the health of millions of people around the world.
He also said the webinar highlighted how "vaccine hesitancy" has a variety of motivations and that many of those reasons among historically disadvantaged communities are valid.
"In fact," the archbishop said, "vaccines have a history that is marked by injustice and oppression. It is difficult to ask for trust from people who have had to deal with systemic victimization by the countries that are generally the ones that produce vaccines."
"Lots of chickens are coming home to roost in these countries," he said. In response, "a one-time effort is not enough. To build real confidence we need policies that include a comprehensive vision of development and fairer international relations."
Asked about the use of the pejorative term "anti-vaxxer," Montgomery said that in promoting vaccinations, there is an obvious difference between a person who has a firm "ideological" position against vaccination and a person who is "vaccine hesitant" and could benefit from more information and encouragement.
In response to questions about the COVID-19 vaccine's connections to abortion, Archbishop Paglia repeated the response of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which urged Catholics to pressure pharmaceutical companies to stop using cells derived from fetuses aborted decades ago to manufacture or test vaccines, but also said when no other effective vaccines are available, "the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive."
Pressed by a reporter about making vaccines obligatory, Archbishop Paglia said he never framed the question in terms of obligation, but of "responsibility," because people must realize that refusing a vaccine not only places their health at risk, but also the health of people around them who, for medical reasons, cannot be vaccinated.
The archbishop described as "exaggerated individualism" an attitude that insisted on one's personal rights while not taking into account that behavior's impact on others.