Vaccine Mistrust: Alive & Well in Romania

Romania has the highest incidence of cervical cancer in Europe, so public health officials launched a HPV vaccination campaign there in 2008.

They offered the vaccine to 10 and 11-year-old girls, the optimal age at which to get the vaccine since  HPV, the virus that causes most cervical cancer cases, is sexually transmitted.

Cervical cancer kills 250,000 women a year, most of them from low- to middle-income countries, according to a 2009 report from the World Health Organization. The HPV vaccine, recommended in 2006 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. for girls beginning at ages 11 and 12, can do much to stem that toll, WHO experts agree.

RELATED: Doctors Urge HPV Vaccine for Boys

However, a follow up report on the Romanian vaccine effort finds that just  2.5% of the eligible girls received parental permission to get the vaccine. Researchers from Babes-Bolyai University in Romania reported their findings Sept. 24 in the journal Vaccine.

Parents in Romania who declined the vaccine for  their daughters gave a variety of reasons why they forego the HPV immunization. Some said they see the vaccine as risky. Others feared it was an experiment that made guinea pigs of their daughters. Still others said the vaccine embodied a conspiracy aimed at reducing the world population.

And where did they get those ideas? Researchers didn't ask, but Seth Kalichman, a professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, has a guess.  They may have heard that information from anti-vaccine groups.

"There are a lot more people being exposed to the anti-vaccine groups, especially on the internet," he told TakePart.

Kalichman has begun to research anti-vaccine group activities, funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Has he found the groups, widespread  in the U.S. and elsewhere, more active now? "I'm not so sure they are stepping up their efforts," he says. Their efforts have been fairly steady for the past five  years or so, he says. "What has changed is more people having access to their efforts," he tells TakePart.

That's because many groups now have a significant presence on social media--especially Facebook and Twitter, he says.

The groups have a conspiracy theory bent, he finds in his research, and they're equal opportunity--against all  vaccines. "HPV vaccine is certainly part of what they are spreading misinformation about," he says.

The excuses given by the Romanian mothers sound familiar to Robert Bednarczyk, an epidemiologist at the Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University, Atlanta, and a clinical investigator at the Center for Health Research--Southeast, Kaiser Permanente Georgia. He has studied  parental response to the vaccine and the effects of the vaccine on sexual activity.

"Many of the barriers cited by the mothers in this study are similar to those we've seen in the US, including concerns about vaccine safety, which have been repeatedly addressed by large studies in the US, and lack of information about the need for the vaccine and relationship between HPV infection and cervical cancer," he tells TakePart.

In his  recent study, published in Pediatrics, Bednarczyk found no differences in sexuality activity nor pregnancies in girls who got the HPV vaccine and those who did not. That should squelch concerns, he says, about the vaccine promoting promiscuity.

RELATED: All Pregnant Women Should Get the Pertussis Vaccine, Officials Say

The new finding in Romania, he says, "highlights a need for comprehensive education" about the vaccine, HPV, and the disease it can cause.

When it comes to HPV vaccination, the education should include information about anti-vaccine groups. On their web sites,  there is often talk about vaccine cover-ups. One site says cervical cancer is nearly 100 percent avoidable without relying on a vaccine--that using condoms and maintaining a strong immune system are key.

One anti-vaccine website cites deaths from the  HPV vaccine.

On the CDC vaccine safety website, it says deaths have been reported to VAERS, the federal Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System, after HPV vaccines are given,  but that "There have been no patterns of death reports that would suggest they were caused by the vaccine."

Calls to anti-vaccine organizations, including Vaccination Liberation, were not returned.

More on vaccines and pandemics:

Doctors Urge HPV Vaccine for Boys

Anti-Vaccine Campaigners Harm Developing World's Health

Flu Vaccines in Grade Schools Significantly Curb Illness

Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles journalist who writes about health. She doesn't believe inmiracle cures, but continues to hope someone will discover a way for joggers to maintain their pace.