The majority of people worldwide think vaccines are safe, according to a new global survey—but the share of doubters is still high enough to threaten immunity.
The survey, conducted by polling group Gallup and health research charity Wellcome, asked more than 140,000 people in 140 countries about their attitudes on a variety of health and science topics, including vaccine safety, trust in doctors and faith in scientists. It comes at a time when vaccines are in the spotlight, thanks to global measles outbreaks fueled partially by resistance to the preventative medicines—even though they’ve been widely and consistently shown to be safe and effective.
Globally, 79% of survey respondents agreed with the statement “vaccines are safe,” while only 7% disagreed; the breakdown of those who felt vaccines are effective was similar. (The remaining people were either unsure or had no opinion.) About 6% of parents worldwide said their children are unvaccinated, mostly in areas such as Africa and Asia where access to vaccines is lower.
While the rate of distrust in vaccines may seem low, developing what experts call “herd immunity”—whereby enough of a population is protected from a disease to minimize its transmission—relies on widespread vaccination, often at levels above 90%. For example, key to eradicating measles in a region is getting that region to at least 95% vaccination coverage, according to the World Health Organization.
The Wellcome report found that wealthier regions, where infectious disease rates tend to be relatively low, reported the least trust in vaccines, while poorer regions, which often grapple with high rates of communicable disease, reported the most trust. In France, which experienced a 462% increase in measles cases between 2017 and 2018, a third of people said they felt that vaccines are unsafe. By contrast, nearly all respondents in Bangladesh and Rwanda, two countries that have seen measurable public-health progress following vaccination campaigns, said vaccines are safe and effective. The U.S. landed somewhere in the middle, with 72% of people agreeing that vaccines are safe.
The survey also asked respondents about their general opinions on science and health care providers. Globally, 72% of people had at least a “medium” level of trust in scientists, while 14% had “low” trust. Trust in doctors and nurses was higher worldwide, with 84% reporting at least some trust.
In general, people who said they believe vaccines are safe were also more likely to trust scientists and health professionals, the survey shows. But at the regional level, there are trends that emerge: Poorer regions generally reported stronger belief in vaccines and lower levels of trust in scientists, while wealthier parts of the world—which tend to have better science education programs than poorer areas—tended to have weaker beliefs in vaccine, and higher levels of trust in scientists.