Many of the people coming to Anna Kukharuk’s private medical clinic don’t have a disease. What plagues them is doubt. But its effects are a health emergency that the doctor and hundreds of others are struggling to remedy. Deep mistrust of vaccines in Ukraine has allowed measles, a virus which according to United Nations data kills 367 children a day worldwide, to grow into an epidemic infecting more than 58,000 people in the country of 42 million this year alone. That has brought one of the world’s most contagious diseases to Europe – there have been recent outbreaks in Poland, Romania and Germany – and possibly beyond, to Israel and New York. International health officials are investigating whether pilgrims to a rabbi’s grave in the Ukrainian city of Uman may have carried measles, via Israel, to the United States.
Pockets of dissenters in many communities have long shunned immunization. In Ukraine, more and more parents are questioning or delaying their children’s shots. Their doubts are rooted in a weak healthcare system, corruption and mistrust of authority. Magnified by rumors on social media, the doubts have transformed the country into a weak spot in efforts to shore up global immunity against infectious diseases, public health specialists say. The World Health Organization (WHO) last year named “vaccine hesitancy” as a top 10 threat to global health. Since 2017, measles has infected 115,000 people in Ukraine and killed 41 – 25 of them children, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Survivors can suffer long-term complications or disabilities such as blindness, deafness or brain damage.
It’s a fight on many fronts. Research shows vaccines save lives, but only half of Ukraine’s population believe they work, according to a report published in June by Britain’s Wellcome Trust, based on a survey of attitudes among 140,000 people from 140 countries. Globally, 84% of those surveyed said they believed vaccines are effective, including more than 80% in the United States and the United Kingdom. Online, concerns about poor-quality ingredients and accounts of children being forcibly vaccinated fuel notions that vaccines are a ploy by Big Pharma and governments to make money and control populations. In fact, most vaccines are low-margin products for drug makers. The shunning of vaccination weakens people’s defences against deadlier diseases, such as polio, which causes paralysis and was eradicated in Europe in 2002. Two children in Ukraine were paralyzed by polio in 2015 – Europe’s first outbreak since 2010, according to the WHO. An emergency vaccination campaign contained that flare-up.