ASM and Research!America Unveil a Survey on Global Pandemics and Vaccines

May 25, 2018

We were just across the street and 3 blocks down the Mall from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History where a new exhibit, “Outbreak, Epidemics in a Connected World,” had opened the week before to rave reviews. The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) had been one of the supporters and shapers of the Smithsonian presentation keyed to the 100th anniversary of the terrifying H1N1 pandemic of 1918.

A week later, ASM was back, or at least we were down the block, at the Newseum, this time, just off Constitution Avenue. We wanted a nonfederal and nonpartisan venue to unveil the results of a new public opinion survey we commissioned with Research!America about 2 of the greatest threats to US health today—the rapid global transmission of emerging pathogens and a growing American skittishness about vaccines.  

As I wrote last week in my bLogPhase post, no one celebrates a plague, but ASM was an enthusiastic supporter of the “Outbreak” exhibit because it reflects our society’s core belief that microbes do not respect borders. The exhibit is very powerful and effective in telling the complicated story of epidemics over the last 100 years, the effects they had on humanity, and the mind-boggling scientific progress made in their wake, it masterfully conveys the message that it really takes a full array of skills and operations to confront these challenges. “Outbreak” also makes a clear-eyed assessment of the challenges that lie ahead for science and for public health, while celebrating the titanic achievements that scientists, doctors, epidemiologists, communicators, government officials, industry, regulatory agencies and more have accomplished over the years. The stakes are enormous.

That’s what brought ASM to the Newseum just a few days after the “Outbreak” opening. ASM, in collaboration with the nonprofit organization Research!America, and a sister society, the American Society for Virology (ASV), commissioned the polling firm Zogby Analytics to do a new national opinion survey on American attitudes toward public health, vaccines and preparedness for epidemics. On May 21 we unveiled the results during a briefing at the Newseum. I was delighted by the standing-room-only turnout of well over 100 people, including scientists, inside-the-Beltway policy wonks, the press, and the congressional TV network C-SPAN (I hope our legislators on the Hill watched carefully), together with interested members of the general public.

C-SPAN Coverage of Event

Facebook Stream of Event

The survey’s results generated some interesting information that we as scientists will need to consider seriously, as Research!America President and CEO Mary Woolley said at the Newseum event.

The Survey: Good News and Bad News

An overwhelming majority of Americans (95%) thinks that outbreaks occurring in other countries pose a minor or major threat to the U.S. Whatever else divides Americans these days, we seem to understand the interconnectivity of our global health system and the fact that microbes know no borders. More than half of Americans (61%) think that the federal government can prevent a major outbreak in the U.S., but only few (28%) agree that the global community is prepared to respond to another epidemic like Ebola. It is heartening to learn that 89% of Americans think the federal government should fund international programs on surveillance and detection of outbreaks, and that 70% say the federal government should do more to educate the public about global diseases and risks for the US.

Our survey also probed public attitudes towards vaccines, especially in the current era of “anti-vaxxers.” We’d designed the new survey to echo the same questions posed 10 years before in a 2008 survey on vaccines. The 2018 results showed a movement in public perception, but not in the right direction. Overall, 70% of Americans thought that common vaccines such as those for polio, tetanus, measles and flu are very important to health of our society. Yet this is a 10% decrease since 2008. We also saw a decrease of 8% in people’s confidence in the current U.S. system for evaluating the safety of vaccines (from 85% in 2008 to 77% now). Only 59% of Americans think that they have benefited from the development of vaccines in the past 50 years, a decrease of 16% from 2008.

Public Perceptions and Concerns

We can’t ignore these results. Yes, there is still near-universal awareness in the U.S. that in our highly interconnected world, epidemics are not stopped by dotted lines on maps. Yet the data on vaccines clearly indicate that we have a lot of work to do with the public. It is very important for us to understand these public sentiments, so that we can think of how to address them, listening carefully to the concerns that some people may have and help provide facts. Microbiologists must address public concerns and fears. As Mary Woolley said very effectively, we, as scientists, work for the public, and we need to be in constant dialogue with the public to both educate and be educated. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), echoed this sentiment, quoting Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts on public sentiment: “… public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed.”

Speaking to this very point at our Newseum event, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, explained the rigorous and robust oversight that the CDC and other health agencies have in place to ensure that vaccines are safe, effective and available to children and adults alike.

Dr. Fauci gave the audience hope that the NIH and other research institutions were rising to the challenge of fast-moving infections in a global world. He cited progress toward a universal flu vaccine as a prime example, stating that while getting vaccinated is always better than not, the current efficacy of flu vaccines could be improved by the development of a universal flu vaccine, which could be a transformative innovation.

The ASM-Research!America survey also shows widespread support among Americans for national and international responses to pandemic threats. We need to build on that. ASM is trying to do its part, especially with our top-notch international program. It’s heartening to realize that ASM is already doing something that the vast majority of Americans think is of great concern to them. I urge those who are interested to take a look at the ASM Global Impact Report.

What ASM Is Doing

ASM is also very active on the outreach front. Our support for the “Outbreak” exhibit is only one component of our robust program to educate the public about the microbial sciences, including the positive and nefarious roles that microbes play in the world. I strongly urge all ASM members to see the exhibit, which runs through May 2021.

Buttressing public confidence in vaccines and the integrity of the scientific process is a long-term challenge, but after the public briefing at the Newseum, I was reminded of a conversation I had with Congressman Ed Royce, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, just 2 weeks ago. Royce said that at the global health level, humans no longer face many large predators roaming the planet, only very small ones—microbes. ASM and nearly all Americans agree that microbes can pose a serious threat, even though the vast majority of microbes are actually beneficial and needed for healthy human life. It is our mission at ASM to re-establish the public connection between that global threat and the protection afforded by better science and better medicines, including vaccines. The grim centennial of the 1918 H1N1 pandemic reminds of us what could happen in a defenseless world.

Author: Stefano Bertuzzi

Stefano Bertuzzi
Stefano Bertuzzi is the CEO of the American Society for Microbiology.