About half of French people either disagree or do not know in response to the statement “Overall, I think vaccines are safe”, an article in the medical journal The Lancet revealed in November.
This is a bad situation, says Françoise Salvadori, biologist and immunologist at the Université de Bourgogne. To put the figure into context it is 16% in China and the UK and 13%, for example, in Germany.
Dr Salvadori said: “Falling vaccination levels are affecting ‘herd immunity’. Tetanus is reappearing in France, as is diphtheria across Europe.
“The eradication of polio is slowing and only 20% of French nurses have taken up the offer of a free flu jab.”
The Lancet’s report followed a study of 65,819 people across 67 countries carried out by Dr Heidi Larson, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control also said in November that the most recent outbreak of measles in the EU had led to 33 deaths. Measles and rubella are increasingly common in France.
“This was why the law was changed from January 2018 to make 11 vaccinations obligatory between a child’s birth and second birthday,” said Dr Salvadori. “We’ve seen improved uptake but I doubt we’ll see the results for another two years until children start school at the age of three.”
The public has been suspicious of vaccinations since they were introduced in the 18th century – a time when the mistrust was justified.
“Vaccinations did save lives, but they were much more dangerous because there was no idea that needles should be sterilised, and patients were often injected with pus from an ill person.”
Today, she said, many vaccines do not contain living cells which could cause a medical reaction, let alone an illness. Where live vaccines are still used, they often use only parts of cells so they cannot cause the actual disease – though they can, rarely, lead to a slight reaction.
She says: “The problem is if someone catches a cold while sitting in the doctor’s waiting room waiting to be vaccinated, they might blame the vaccination – which is medically impossible – rather than connect it to having sat near someone who is ill.”
Dr Salvadori, who has worked on cancer and AIDS research, is now investigating how the public understands scientific advances. She has published a book on the subject, Antivax: Histoire de la Résistance aux Vaccins du XVIIIe Siècle à Nos Jours, co-written with science historian Laurent-Henri Vignaud.
She says reasons for avoiding vaccinations include: misinformation spread via social media; a general mistrust of the state as well as “big pharma”; a belief that nature is better than chemicals; a refusal to accept that diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella can have serious lifelong consequences; and even in certain circles a belief that getting ill in some way strengthens and helps children.
“The French authorities haven’t helped,” she said. “There have been so many medical scandals. The disclosure that HIV-contaminated blood had been given to patients even after the authorities knew it was contaminated did huge damage to public trust.
“The government’s insistence that the Chernobyl fallout cloud stopped at the border was also ill-judged.
“Another strange thing is that some GPs prescribe homeopathic remedies even though there isn’t a shred of evidence that homeopathy works. Doctors must know they are ineffective, but perhaps they think patients expect these prescriptions – or perhaps they rely on the placebo effect.
“There is also an excessive trust in nature. People think that natural remedies can’t harm them. People forget that before modern medicine, when everyone relied on ‘natural remedies’, many people died at 40.
“But the social movement towards organic products, natural fabrics, the turning away from plastics and industrially-prepared food means people also turn away from ‘big pharma’.
“All sorts of misinformation circulates online and because much of it chimes with what we already believe, and because we feel no one has anything to gain financially by informing us via the web, people tend to believe it without question. It’s a problem.”
She says the truth about vaccinations is that they work, they save lives, and they are the safest, most-tested drugs currently used in medicine – and they do not cause autism or auto-immune diseases. Due to vaccination, the last known case of smallpox was seen in 1977, and it was declared eradicated in 1980.
Vaccinations carry fewer risks than paracetamol or ibuprofen. “But people can feel an immediate benefit when they take paracetamol, so they accept the small risk. Often, they think their children won’t come into contact with a serious disease, so why bother vaccinating them?”
But she issued a note of warning: “Not all diseases can be wiped out. It will be possible to eradicate polio and measles, for example, because they are only carried by humans, but tetanus will never be eradicated because it’s present in all soil, and you can’t vaccinate all the soil in the world.
“It will be difficult to eradicate rabies, too, as it’s carried by wild animals as well as humans, so with diseases like that we have to protect everyone individually.”
She particularly recommends influenza vaccination. “The truth is that it is 70% effective in under-fives and only 50% effective in people over 65 because the virus mutates.
“But true influenza, as opposed to a heavy cold, can be fatal, and can lead to fatal secondary infections.
“It is 100% impossible to get flu or even a cold from the vaccination because it is a dead vaccine so there is nothing to lose and everything to gain from being vaccinated.”