The public health crisis of underimmunisation: a global plan of action

Featured Journal Content

Lancet Infectious Diseases
Volume 20, ISSUE 1, P1, January 01, 2020
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The public health crisis of underimmunisation: a global plan of action
Lawrence O Gostin, James G Hodge Jr, Barry R Bloom, Ayman El-Mohandes, Jonathan Fielding,
Peter Hotez, Ann Kurth, Heidi J Larson, Walter A Orenstein, Kenneth Rabin, Scott C Ratzan, Daniel Salmon
Vaccination is one of public health’s greatest achievements, responsible for saving billions of lives. Yet, 20% of children worldwide are not fully protected, leading to 1·5 million child deaths annually from vaccine-preventable diseases. Millions more people have severe disabling illnesses, cancers, and disabilities stemming from underimmunisation. Reasons for falling vaccination rates globally include low public trust in vaccines, constraints on affordability or access, and insufficient governmental vaccine investments. Consequently, an emerging crisis in vaccine hesitancy ranges from hyperlocal to national and worldwide. Outbreaks often originate in small, insular communities with low immunisation rates. Local outbreaks can spread rapidly, however, transcending borders. Following an assessment of underlying determinants of low vaccination rates, we offer an action based on scientific evidence, ethics, and human rights that spans multiple governments, organisations, disciplines, and sectors.


Vaccination is among public health’s greatest achievements, saving billions of lives. Global scourges such as smallpox have been eradicated, with polio nearing eradication. Childhood diseases (such as measles, mumps, and pertussis) have substantially diminished through modern vaccination practices. Yet, one in five children worldwide are not fully protected, resulting in 1·5 million child deaths annually from diseases that are preventable by vaccination, including diarrhoea and pneumonia, equating to one death every 20 s.1 Millions more people have severe disabling illnesses, cancers, and disabilities from infections caused by underimmunisation. Ten highly populous countries with suboptimal immunisation systems account for over 70% of the world’s unvaccinated children.1

Despite vast benefits, immunisation levels are falling among specific populations in countries at all wealth levels. Reasons vary, ranging from low public trust in vaccines to constraints on affordability or access. The WHO rates vaccine hesitancy—reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite vaccine availability—as among the top ten global health threats for 2019.2 Overall, both WHO and UNICEF report in 2019 that global immunisation rates for common childhood vaccines have flat-lined at 86% over the past decade.2, 3 Country rates vary widely, from 25% in Equatorial Guinea to 96% in Norway.3 Vaccinations in many countries are falling below levels needed for so-called herd immunity, or community protection, resulting in outbreaks. The global incidence of measles increased by 30% over the previous year in 2017 alone, with major diphtheria outbreaks in multiple regions.4

The vaccination crisis ranges from hyperlocal to national and worldwide. Outbreaks often originate in small, insular communities with low vaccination rates. Yet, local outbreaks can spread rapidly, transcending borders. Mass migration and international travel propel infectious diseases across the globe. Anti-vaccine messaging targets local communities, but is also disseminated widely on internet platforms and social media. Multiple forces driving the resurgence of childhood diseases also threaten immunisation campaigns, such as for polio and malaria.

The remarkable promise of immunisation has stubbornly stalled, with losses measured in deaths and human suffering.5 In 2018, 20 million children missed out on lifesaving measles, diphtheria, and tetanus vaccines.3 Underlying this public health crisis is a striking paradox—vaccines are victims of their own success. Immunisations are remarkably effective, closely monitored, and very safe. Consequently, many clinicians and parents have not seen the consequences of vaccine-preventable diseases and underestimate their harms. Governments also fail to adequately invest in vaccines, from research to cold storage and delivery.

There are no simple solutions to this problem, but innovative policies and programmes working in concert would substantially increase vaccination rates. We offer an action plan based on scientific evidence, ethics, and human rights. Crucially, an effective response must be multidisciplinary and multisectoral, spanning governments, international organisations, the private sector, and civil society. Our plan begins with an examination of underlying determinants of low vaccination rates…


Generating sustainable solutions
Underimmunisation is a global crisis requiring sustainable solutions. We offer a three-pronged strategy: innovative financing for vaccine affordability, accessibility, and availability; evidence-based health communication campaigns at local, national, and global levels; and law reform that has public acceptance and is fairly implemented.

:: Vaccine affordability, accessibility, and availability
Projected global funding shortfalls of $7·2 billion (between 2016 and 2020) undermine immunisation goals.36
WHO’s 2013 Global Vaccine Action Plan estimated $60 billion needed for 94 LMICs from 2011 to 2020,37 nearly half of which is unsecured through government or philanthropic sources. WHO also seeks an additional $10 billion for its own operations by 2023, including $667 million to “strengthen routine vaccination and health systems” and $1·6 billion for polio eradication.38
Most costs focus on immunisation services, including management, training, social mobilisation, and surveillance. Rapid deployment of vaccines in response to emerging threats is also essential to save lives and reduce costs.

WHO’s Action Plan partners focus on the entire vaccine pipeline—from research, price, storage, and delivery to robust health systems. Dedicated funding for national immunisation programmes is an essential driver for national and global initiatives. Gavi, for example, generates long-term resources through the international finance facility for immunisation and advanced market commitments to support pneumococcal vaccines. A global campaign to raise financing to scale should be a major priority, especially for low-income countries that are unable to pay for or administer vaccines across their populations. Solidarity for universal vaccine availability is warranted because deficiencies in any country threaten populations worldwide. Each government must assure robust national immunisation systems, but the international community also shares responsibility to fill gaps in capacity through enhanced coordination, forecasting, and manufacturer incentives. Global partnerships like the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) align public and private actors to fund, develop, and equitably distribute vaccines.

:: Trustworthy information environment
Resources alone, of course, cannot ensure high immunisation rates if the public distrusts the quality, safety, or effectiveness of vaccines. Gaining trust has become difficult with the rise of nationalist populism, which often questions science and casts doubt on expert opinions. The public cannot rely on the media to provide unbiased or accurate messages. Although some parents remain vehemently opposed to vaccinations, most are open to non-judgmental messages and want the best for their children. Altering the informational environment to afford greater salience to accurate, science-based messages could assuage parental concerns. WHO, governments, and partners (eg, philanthropists, industry, and civil society) should sustainably fund evidence-based engagement and health communication strategies that are proactive, timely, and credible, and tailored to specific audiences. WHO is generating a hub for vaccination acceptance and demand to provide reliable information and tools. Governments should similarly develop national and regional campaigns, including an emphasis on behavioural changes. Key components of effective communication campaigns include objective messaging in traditional and social media designed to assuage fears and promote accurate health information and immunisation outcomes. Campaigns should recruit well trusted spokespeople such as leaders in sport, entertainment, and religion. Health engagement is often the most effective at the community level through local leaders, teachers, and religious figures.

Governments should also adopt transparent, lawful, and measured regulations to correct or remove disinformation from the internet and social media. In the same way that states limit malicious hate speech and violent images, they can sensibly regulate patently false or misleading vaccine information. Social media enterprises should be held accountable for rooting out irresponsible vaccine rumours pervading their platforms. For example, searches for vaccine-related terms on Pinterest are automatically diverted to trustworthy vaccine sources like WHO and CDC.39 Furthermore, internet search engines should prioritise reliable scientific sources over anti-vaccine websites.

Traditional and social media play a special role in open and free societies, and their independence is highly valued. Encouraging self-regulation and ethical corporate responsibility could avoid formal regulation. Governments at the 2019 G20 Summit, for example, asked social media companies to remove violent, terrorism-related messages and images. Facebook agreed to assess its policies governing anti-vaccination information and advertising on its site. YouTube has begun taking down misleading videos and images. Moreover, Amazon is removing anti-vaccination videos, books, and documentaries.

:: National or regional law reform
Governments can use legal tools successfully to increase vaccination rates. Efficacious vaccination laws can lead to higher immunisation coverage.30 Vaccination mandates passed in France and Italy are associated with increased vaccine rates.40 A meta-analysis of European laws, however, did not find a strong link between vaccination laws and coverage.24 These disparate findings might suggest that legal approaches tailored to local cultures work best.

Vaccination laws must exempt people for legitimate medical reasons, such as infants and immunosuppressed individuals. Yet, overzealous reliance on non-medical exemptions can result in preventable outbreaks.27 Multiple US studies conclude that school vaccination laws with fewer exemptions lowered the incidence of childhood diseases. Governments should consider repealing or restricting permissive religious and philosophical exceptions. Such reforms are consistent with freedoms of religion and conscience because they do not target particular religious or other communities, but are applied fairly and equally throughout society. Parents are responsible for not placing their own, and other, children at risk of serious infections. Well tailored laws can also help reduce the number of people objecting to vaccinations due to misinformation.


The global crises of underimmunisation risks hard-won gains in preventing infectious diseases. Resurging childhood diseases and fragile global vaccination campaigns necessitate concerted action. Our action plan focuses on the prime causes of underimmunisation: vaccine availability, public distrust, and lax immunisation laws. Immunisation is a potent public health tool. Finding the political will and holding governments accountable are essential. Countless lives can be saved if the international community sustainably funds vaccination systems, assures reliable information, and safeguards the common good through meaningful law reform.