More than 4,000 representatives from 194 member states gathered in Geneva, Switzerland during May 20-28, 2019 to discuss human-related health issues at the 72nd World Health Assembly, a meeting of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) top decision-making body.1 On the second day of the meeting, the U.S. and 14 other governments sponsored an event “Promoting Vaccine Confidence: Embracing Global Immunization Efforts to Protect the Health of All Generations,” at which doctors and government execs in powerful positions railed against parents questioning vaccine safety and opposing “no exceptions” mandatory use of government recommended vaccines.
Gavi Chief Says Vaccine Hesitancy is “A Contagious Disease”
According to Reuters, Dr. Seth Berkley, founder of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, Inc. and current CEO of Gavi Vaccine Alliance,2 said that “misinformation” about vaccines was not a freedom of speech issue and called on companies hosting online social media platforms to remove the information. “I remind people that this kills people,” said Berkley.3
Agency France Presse (AFP) published a story entitled “Fight vaccine hesitancy as a ‘contagious disease,’ UN meeting told.” According to AFP, Dr. Berkley described the “growing anti-vaccine movement in richer nations” this way:
It’s a contagious disease,” Seth Berkley, who heads the GAVI Vaccine Alliance told AFP, warning that misinformation about vaccine safety “spreads at the speed of light.4
Before becoming the head of Gavi in 2011, Dr. Berkley worked for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Rockefeller Foundation, the Carter Center and served on the Boards of Vaxinnate Corp, Napo Pharmaceuticals and Powderjet Pharmaceuticals.5 6 In 2016, he and other Gavi executives were criticized in an investigative media report in the United Kingdom for taking excessively high salary packages.7
On Oct. 16, 2018 at the World Health Summit in Berlin, he announced that 11 heads of the world’s leading health and development organizations had signed a “landmark commitment” to find news ways to accelerate achieving the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. He related the UN’s broader sustainable development goals to Gavi’s goal of delivering vaccines to all children.8
Two months later, Dr. Berkley told CNN that “while measles is one of the few diseases we could potentially eradicate, that will never happen if wealthy countries like the United States can’t maintain herd immunity. Because a measles case anywhere is a threat everywhere.” He suggested that parents who don’t vaccinate their children are selfish. “In countries like the United States we need to stop thinking about vaccination as something you only do to protect the one you love, and instead view it also as a goodwill act for the benefit of others.9
U.S. Government, Gates Foundation Biggest Donors to Gavi & WHO
Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance is a public-private partnership established by the WHO and U.S. government with funding provided in 2000 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation “to improve access to new and underused vaccines for children living in the world’s poorest countries.”10 Gavi serves as a multilateral funding mechanism for purchase and delivery of vaccines involving the WHO, governments, the vaccine industry, World Bank, philanthropic foundations and civil society groups.11
Since 2000, more than $15B has been raised by Gavi to vaccinate the world’s children. The U.S. government has contributed about $1.9B to Gavi and the Gates Foundation is the largest private donor.12
The U.S. government is the largest state member funder of WHO. The Gates Foundation is the largest non-state funder of the WHO, having donated more than $2B in earmarked grants to the international health agency since 1998. Because the Gates Foundation grant money is earmarked for specific programs, such as vaccine purchase, delivery and promotion, the Gates Foundation significantly influences the setting of WHO’s program priorities. 13
U.S. Health Secretary Targets ‘Social Media Conspiracy Groups’
At the vaccine promotion event co-sponsored by the U.S. government at the World Assembly Meeting in Geneva, AFP reported that former Eli Lilly executive and current U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar II, JD14 said, “In my country, social media conspiracy groups confuse well-meaning parents so they hesitate to get the recommended vaccinations.”
According to the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), Azar also highlighted “ongoing US investments aimed at boosting vaccination coverage globally,” such as technical assistance provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to support vaccination campaigns in low-income countries and research on new vaccines for Ebola and HIV funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).15
Vaccine “Misinformation” Breeds Distrust and Destabilization of Governments?
IDSA reported some speakers suggested that, “misinformation about vaccines can also breed mistrust of governments that are promoting vaccination. Such mistrust can destabilize governments with major global ramifications.” Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam reportedly told attendees that public education must establish the status of vaccination as a “social norm,” ensuring that public discourse is not dominated by vaccine opponents.16
Unsafe Hospital Care: 134M Adverse Events & 2.6M Deaths
Despite the highly publicized vaccine promotion event demonizing parents pushing back against enforcement of one-size-fits-all vaccine policies and laws, the World Health Assembly attendees identified far more pressing global health problems like universal health coverage,17 anti-microbial resistance,18 non-communicable diseases,19 greater transparency for pricing of drugs and vaccines,20 and sanitation and patient safety.21
The World Health Assembly attendees recognized patient safety and reducing patient harm in healthcare settings as a key priority, and endorsed the establishment of an annual World Patient Safety Day, pointing out that:
Patient harm due to adverse events is one of the leading causes of death and disability globally. An estimated 134 million adverse events occur annually due to unsafe care are in hospitals in low and middle income countries, contributing to 2.6 million deaths, while 1 in 10 patients is estimated to be harmed while receiving hospital care in high income countries.22
An estimated 15 percent of patients in the world develop one or more infections during a hospital stay, with those living in low-income countries at greatest risk. Member states agreed to a new resolution to improve safe water, sanitation and hygiene in health facilities around the world to prevent the spread of infections and reduce maternal and newborn deaths. Reportedly, one in four healthcare facilities lacks basic water services and one in five have no sanitation services, which affects 2 billion people.
WHO Developing New Global Vaccine Action Plan
The WHO is the world’s largest and most influential public health agency with an annual budget for 2018-2019 of $4421.5M ($4.4 billion).23 The biggest individual programs funded by WHO have been for polio eradication vaccine campaigns ($903M); vaccine campaigns for other communicable diseases ($805M); and corporate services/enabling functions ($715.5M).
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, who was Ethiopia’s Minister of Health and then Minister of Foreign Affairs before being elected WHO Director-General in 2017,24 told attendees at the World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva that, “WHO is working to ensure vaccines reach more countries than ever before. Vaccination is a right and a shared responsibility.”25
A new Global Vaccine Action Plan is being developed by WHO,26 which will be presented at the meeting of the World Health Assembly 2020. Emphasis is being placed on integrating vaccination programs into wider national health systems to provide every child and adult in the world with vaccinations throughout life as part of a life-long primary healthcare plan.
This article or commentary provides referenced information and perspective on a topic related to vaccine science, policy, law or ethics being discussed in public forums and by U.S. lawmakers. The websites of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) provide information and perspective of federal agencies responsible for vaccine research, development, regulation and policymaking.
1 Devdiscourse. Health for All: World Health Assembly 2019 Starts in Geneva. May 20, 2019.
2 Gavi The Vaccine Alliance. Seth Berkely, Gavi Chief Executive Officer. Gavi 2019.
3 Miles T. Vaccine doubts spread like disease, must be taken offline: vaccine chief. Reuters May 21, 2019.
4 Larson N. Fight vaccine hesitancy as ‘contagious disease,’ UN meeting told. Agency France Presse May 21, 2019.
5 Seth F. Berkley. Bloomberg Accessed May 29, 2019.
6 Vaxinnate Corp. Wellcome Trust Leads Round – Emerging Swine Flu Among Targets for Development of Novel Vaccines. Business Wire May 6, 2009.
7 Birrell I. The fattest charity fat cat of them all: Foreign aid boss has made MILLIONS out of the £1.5billion handed to his charity by British taxpayers. Daily Mail Dec. 31, 2016.
8 Berkley S. Global health organisations commit to new ways of working together for greater impact. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance Oct. 16, 2018.
9 Berkley S. Getting Your Child Vaccinated Is A Gift to Others. CNN Dec. 30, 2018.
10 Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Gavi’s mission.
11 Fisher BL. WHO, Pharma, Gates & Government: Who’s Calling the Shots? NVIC Newsletter Jan. 27, 2019.
12 Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. The United States Government and the World Health Organization. May 14, 2018.
13 Martens J, Seitz K. Philanthropic Power and Development: Who Shapes the Agenda? The entry of the Gates Foundation into the global health arena. The Global Policy Forum November 2015.
14 DHHS. Alex M. Azar II. Jan. 29, 2019.
15 Jezek A. World Health Assembly 2019: Health leaders confront impacts of global vaccine barriers. Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) May 21, 2019.
17 WHO. World Health Assembly Update 22 May 2019.
18 WHO. World Health Assembly Update, 23 May 2019 – Antimicrobial resistance.
19 WHO. World Health Assembly Update, 24 May 2019.
20 WHO. World Health Assembly Update, 28 May 2019.
21 WHO. World Health Assembly Update, 25 May 2019.
23 WHO. Programme Budget 2018-2019. Approved by Seventieth World Health Assembly May 26, 2017.
24 WHO. Biography of Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. 2019.
25 Jezek A. World Health Assembly 2019: Health leaders confront impacts of global vaccine barriers. Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) May 21, 2019.
26 WHO. Immunization Today and In the Next Decade: Developing together the vision and strategy for immunization 2021-2030. Draft Zero for co-creation by June 14, 2019.