Several weeks into the stay-at-home order that has shuttered much of the U.S., I left home to take my six-month-old to the doctor for his scheduled immunizations. As we made our way there, I was struck by a simple fact: At a time when we are experiencing the uncertainty and fear of living in a world without one critical vaccine, I was happy to get him vaccinated against the diseases we could prevent.
Over the last few years, we have seen first-hand evidence of the reemergence of vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs), like the troubling and sometimes deadly reemergence of measles. Pockets have popped up in various communities, threatening the measles-elimination status that we have worked so hard to attain.
But not in recent history have we seen such a dramatic illustration of what can happen in the absence of a needed vaccine as we have with the COVID-19 virus. Though one might assume that everyone would jump on a vaccine against the novel coronavirus, the data suggest this isn’t necessarily the case.
In our most recent research into vaccine sentiment, APCO Worldwide conducted a poll of 2,000 American adults between March 26 and 27. Participants were balanced by age, gender and region.
While an overwhelming majority of Americans indicated they would get a vaccine that protects against COVID-19 if it were made available, confidence around the value and safety of vaccines is less clear. The new data showed that 83% of Americans would be very or somewhat likely to get a vaccine for the coronavirus if one were available and recommended by their physician. Similarly, 68% agree that since preventing the spread of the virus is the only thing that will end the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines are valued more than ever.
But personal views about vaccine safety haven’t showed much change. In the poll, 56% of Americans said their views toward vaccine safety have not changed over the past year, while 39% said they now feel vaccines are either much or somewhat safer. In 2018, the story was similar—half of the participants hadn’t changed their views over the previous year and 43% said vaccines are safer.
For far too long, vaccines and the critical infrastructure needed to support them has been underfunded. According to a report by the Trust for America’s Health, of the $3.6 trillion the United States spends on health, less than 3% of that spending is directed toward public health and prevention.
Based on our research, however, we have seen a new positive trend of Americans recognizing the lack of critical investment in our vaccine infrastructure and supporting a renewed emphasis on vaccine development in light of the current crisis. According our newest polls, less than half of Americans are convinced that government funding over the past year for vaccines development has been sufﬁcient or that private companies have prioritized developing vaccines.
At the same time, a majority of Americans agree that more public funding should be put toward vaccine development (68%) and that private companies should be required to research vaccines, even if not profitable (61%). Interestingly, looking ahead, 83% of Americans believe there will be more support for government funding of vaccine research in 2021 because of the pandemic.
And importantly, it’s not just COVID-19 itself that’s putting the necessity of vaccine funding and delivery in the public eye. There’s a domino effect: In a few short months, COVID-19 has already dramatically affected the vaccination rate for the VPDs mentioned earlier.
According to a recent New York Times poll, rates for routine childhood vaccination have dropped precipitously since February 2020, as people have canceled or postponed appointments. The World Health Organization has also warned that while children may be at relatively low risk with COVID-19, their risk of other diseases—VPDs—is high.
As the pandemic continues and the full range of consequences become more obvious, public sentiment may still evolve. But now more than ever, we must support the existing dedicated community of vaccine advocates so they can partner with vaccine researchers, manufacturers and consumers broadly, and clearly communicate why vaccines are critical.
Katie Milgrom is director, health at APCO Worldwide