France is home to the highest rates of vaccine mistrust in Europe, with a third of French people disagreeing that vaccines are safe, according to the Wellcome Global Monitor survey. However, the country is aiming to shed its reputation for vaccine hesitancy and roll out increased mandatory vaccinations for a variety of diseases.
Over the past ten years, nonfactual research has accumulated, raising doubts and fears about vaccines. Anti-vaccination campaigns have claimed that the hepatitis B vaccine causes multiple sclerosis or that the MMR (measles–mumps–rubella) vaccine causes autism. This trend has particularly taken hold in France, where today, one of every three French people thinks that vaccines are unsafe.
Vaccine hesitancy – whether bred by misinformation on the Internet, apprehensive doctors or the distrust of public authorities – has resulted in an upsurge of measles epidemics. In France, measles vaccination rates in children dropped from 99 percent in 2010 to 90 percent in 2017.. In 2018, the country experienced 2,500 cases of measles, three deaths and up to a 22 percent increase in hospitalization rates. “In the homeland of Pasteur that is not admissible,” stated Prime Minister Édouard Philippe.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO),“the total number of people infected with the virus in 2018 was the highest this decade: three times the total reported in 2017 and 15 times the record low number of people affected in 2016”. The WHO has raised the alarm and places refusal to vaccinate as one of the top 10 major threats to global health.
The French Ministry of Health, in the face of vaccine-preventable outbreaks, has resorted to coercive measures to improve vaccination coverage. They have decided to extend the list of mandatory vaccinations for children from ages three to 11. All children born since 1 January 2018 must be up to date for all compulsory vaccines to be allowed access to collective childcare and schools.
The eight new compulsory vaccines are: pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B, Haemophilus influenza bacteria (flu), pneumococcus and meningococcus C, along with the already mandatory diphtheria, tetanus, and poliomyelitis vaccines.
Historically, such measures have worked wonders: vaccination against polio was made compulsory in 1964 and by 1989 the disease was completely eradicated in France. However, resorting to threats of sanctions has also been shown to fuel anti-vaccine activism and public mistrust of authorities.
To limit the risk of a backfiring effect, France is implementing a comprehensive plan aimed at raising public awareness of vaccinations, independent of punitive policies. The government is committed to educating healthcare professionals and the general public by providing information about vaccine science, recommendations and coverage data. In addition, the government carries out regular surveillance of attitudes towards vaccination, as well as vaccination coverage.
In 2017, France also launched an influenza training pilot program in pharmacies, allowing pharmacists to administer the vaccine, and in doing so, increase vaccination coverage. A total of 743,554 people received the influenza vaccine – about 23 percent of whom were getting the vaccine for the first time. Due to its success, vaccination training is now part of the curriculum in pharmacy studies.
Perhaps the most à la mode development is the rollout of a smartphone app and website, MesVaccins.net, which stores individuals’ vaccine records. The platform makes recommendations based on age and risk profile according to expert insights.
To date, vaccine coverage has risen and negative attitudes are, according to official sources, becoming less prevalent. France, a country that helped pioneer several vaccines, is now driving efforts against vaccine hesitancy and stands on the cusp of becoming a European vaccination leader.
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