Maltese are believers in vaccines, but misinformation threatens scientific understanding

Malta may enjoy a high rate of vaccination, but a recent Eurobarometer survey found that knowledge of how vaccines work and why they are important remains low

The Maltese public must be helped to better understand how vaccines work, as a swathe of misinformation through social media threatens to enter public discourse.

Malta’s public health superintendent Charmaine Gauci said social media was promoting “vaccine hesitancy” as more misinformation from anti-vaxxers spreads on the Internet. But unlike many other countries – including in Italy – Malta now has a strong anti-vaccination lobby.

“We must be careful however, because [social media] can easily spread incorrect information,” Gauci said.

Her comments come in the wake of a Eurobarometer survey published last month, which looked into Europeans’ attitudes towards vaccination.

The data showed that while the Maltese professed a strong belief in the power of vaccination, few showed an understanding of the science behind it.

For example, Malta had the lowest rate of individuals who didn’t believe vaccines helped prevent diseases (1%), as well as a high proportion of people (88%) who said that not getting vaccinated could lead to serious health issues.

The Maltese were also amongst the highest in Europe to heed government advice on the need for vaccination at 47%, well over the EU average of 24%.

However, when asked other questions about the power of vaccines to cause side-effects, weaken the immune system, or even cause the disease they are trying to prevent, the Maltese proved to have only a “medium index knowledge” of vaccines – indeed at 61%, having the highest of the EU’s medium knowledge, while only 31% displayed a “high knowledge” of vaccines.

An Italian rally protests the mandatory vaccination of children
An Italian rally protests the mandatory vaccination of children

The results indicate that while many people trust their doctor, they do so blindly, and remain prone to believing misinformation, whether intentional or not.

This, Gauci said, was cause for some concern.

“Given that people would be more willing to get vaccinated, they are less likely to believe false information if they had a proper understanding of how vaccines work. This is one of the matters we are trying to address through our educational campaigns.”  

In recent years, the United States and Europe have witnessed the return of a number of vaccine-preventable diseases, to a large degree due to the rise of well-funded and in some cases unopposed anti-vaccine groups and lobbies.

The rise to prominence of populist governments has further helped the spread of anti-vaccine rhetoric: Italy’s anti-vaccination movement enjoyed widespread public sympathy. When former health minister Beatrice Lorenzin introduced a policy in 2017 obliging children to receive ten compulsory vaccinations, political hostility followed, scepticism that was amplified by the populist right, from Matteo Salvini’s hard-right Lega and the Five Star Movement.

After being elected, Salvini even called the set of ten vaccinations “useless, in some cases dangerous if not harmful,” without specifying the grounds his views were based upon.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation reported a 30% increase in measles outbreaks over 2016. Similar trends have been observed in the United States, where harsh measles outbreaks have been reported in a number of states. 2018 was also notable for being one of the worst flu seasons in decades, with over 80,000 deaths and record-high influenza-related hospital admissions.

Malta has also experienced an increase in reported cases of measles, having registered 15 cases between January and April this year, compared to just five in all of 2018.

The importance of understanding science

Lecturer and communicator Edward Duca, who is also the editor of University publication Think!, said it was worrying that so many people believed that vaccines produce serious side-effects.

“It’s good that people in Malta listen to their doctors and other health practitioners, as these individuals are often well-informed and can give the best suggestions,” Duca told MaltaToday, adding that “faith in experts in the age of Trump and Brexit” is positive.

“An ideal situation would be having people talk to their doctors while also being able to think critically to figure out whether news is fake or not… We need campaigns to get the right messages across, but also to encourage people to criticise what they read and to find out the reality behind the headline.”

Beyond vaccines, Duca stressed that scientific knowledge and critical thinking are key for people to understand the products they use. “We always need to trust others for advice. I look to my accountant for tax returns, but if someone writes that there’s a new tax scheme I could access, I should be in a position to figure out whether it’s true or not,” Duca said, insisting that the same applied to health.

“We should always know enough, or be able to learn to take care of ourselves. Education is linked to a better life, higher income and more happiness. It’s the best shield we have from harming ourselves.”  

Duca said he believed there were many anti-vaxxers who, despite their beliefs, had the best of intentions. “I don’t think they all have an alternate agenda to make money, gain power,” Duca said. “We need to develop a dialogue with people to understand why they are afraid of vaccines.”

Duca says it is for that reason that the annual Science in the City festival, which he organises, highlights the importance to engage people to think critically about the world, for them to learn to see the value in understanding science.

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