Compulsory vaccination was first introduced in the UK – where no vaccines are currently mandated – through the 1853 Vaccination Act. The law required that all children ‘whose health permits’ be vaccinated against smallpox, and obliged physicians to certify that vaccination had taken place. Parents who refused vaccination could be fined £1.
Since then, vaccine mandates have evolved to include a variety of incentives and penalties. In some US states, children cannot access public schools without being vaccinated; in Australia, compliance with childhood immunisation schedules has been linked to pre-school admission (‘No jab, no play’) and to family assistance payments (‘No jab, no pay’).
In most instances where vaccine mandates are in force, they apply only to childhood immunisation. However, vaccination is a condition of employment in some institutions – notably in healthcare facilities. This is not a legal mandate per se but is a form of discrimination accepted in several jurisdictions. In principle, mandates – like vaccines – can be for people of all ages.
The state of play in Europe
In Europe, the picture is mixed. A 2010 study of 27 EU countries (plus Iceland and Norway) found that 15 had no mandatory vaccines. In the meantime, Italy has added 10 vaccines to its list of compulsory vaccines; France and Romania are preparing new laws that would penalise parents of unvaccinated children; and Finland will introduce legislation in March 2018 that requires health and social care providers to ensure staff are immunised against measles, varicella, pertussis and influenza. The diversity of measures taken suggests no proven strategy exists that can be universally applied.
So, why is there a trend towards mandates and other legal instruments? Political science research on the value of international sanctions against rogue nations has found that while they are often ineffective, sanctions may give some satisfaction to the government implementing the rules. The same may apply to vaccine mandates. ‘Sanctions are often more about the sender than the recipient,’ says Dr Katie Attwell, University of Western Australia, ‘Maybe it’s more of an emotional experience for those who want to punish a country – or, in in the case of vaccinations, a citizen – that deviates from the norm.’
The impact of mandates in European countries has been assessed by the EU-funded ASSET project which found no clear link between vaccine uptake and mandatory vaccination. The report, which has been cited by the European Commission in response to questions from Members of the European Parliament states: ‘The enforcement of mandatory vaccinations does not appear to be relevant in determining childhood immunisation rate in the analysed countries. Those [countries] where a vaccination is mandatory do not usually reach better coverage than neighbour or similar countries where there is no legal obligation.’
ASSET experts have also argued that while mandatory vaccination might fix a short-term problem, it is not a long-term solution. Better organisation of health systems and strong communication strategies may prove more effective. ‘Mandatory vaccinations for both healthcare workers and the public can obtain a rapid improvement in immunisation rates, but in the end, have high costs, especially in term of litigation,’ says Dr Darina O’Flanagan, previous Director of Health Protection Surveillance Centre Ireland and a member of the Advisory Forum of the European Centre for Disease Control 2005-2016.
This is echoed by the EU Commissioner with responsibility for health, Dr Vytenis Andriukaitis ‘The legitimate goal of achieving the highest possible immunisation rates can be attained through less stringent policies, and most Member States prefer the adoption of ‘recommendation policies’ or else a mix of obligation/recommendation policies,’ according to EU Commissioner.
In the meantime, Italy – and by 2018, France and Romania – will be a real-world testbed for the implementation of broad vaccine mandates in the 21st century. Prof Pierluigi Lopalco, University of Pisa, says mandates may polarise public opinion. ‘Consider the Three Cs (Confidence, Complacency and Convenience),’ he says. ‘Mandates do not improve vaccine confidence; they make opposition to vaccination even stronger. However, they are a powerful way to break complacency and this new approach should make vaccination services more convenient and efficient.’
There is no one-size fits all approach to improving vaccine uptake. Some countries with mandates, such as Poland, have high vaccination rates; others, such as Finland, achieve similar results without mandates.
The real power of a mandate is not in coercing reluctant parents to vaccinate children against their will; it is in sending a signal to the wider population that vaccination is a vital part of public health. In this sense, the momentum generated by the debate on mandatory vaccination may have some positive effect. The risk, however, is that it will spark an anti-vaccine backlash equal to – or greater than – this positive signal. This risk would be amplified in cases where vaccine supply or access to vaccination services is not guaranteed, as has been the case in Romania.
A more promising move would be to invest in understanding the behavioural drivers of vaccine acceptance. Including this issue in the forthcoming EU Action Plan on Vaccination, due to be launched in 2018, would be a welcome initiative. In the meantime, it is essential that legislative changes be closely monitored in Italy, Romania, France and Finland – along with policy measures in Germany and other countries where mandates are not in place.
There may not be a silver bullet for vaccine hesitancy but research and sharing experiences are Europe’s best hope for controlling vaccine-preventable diseases.