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French Officials Boost Measles Vaccine Rates, Overcome Skeptics


The World Health Organization has warned of a surge of measles across Europe. Even though scientists have debunked claims of allegedly dangerous side effects, distrust of the measles vaccine runs high in France. Health officials there have made the shots compulsory. And, as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports now from Paris, almost all children under 2 are now protected.



ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The National League for the Freedom of Vaccination held its annual meeting this summer in Paris. About a hundred people from different backgrounds turned out, all united in their conviction that the dangers of vaccines are being hidden by the government and that drug companies just want to make profits.

Retiree Patrice Maillard says it's impossible to inoculate an entire population.

PATRICE MAILLARD: (Through interpreter) All the information we're fed is biased. They say that thanks to vaccines, infectious diseases have almost been eradicated, but it's because of better diets, hygiene and education. The major diseases were almost gone when the pharmaceutical companies showed up with their vaccines.

BEARDSLEY: On the other side of town, one person says the anti-vaxxers have made his job very difficult of late.

MANUEL MAIDENBERG: I'm Dr. Manuel Maidenberg, and I'm a pediatrician since more than 30 years.

BEARDSLEY: Maidenberg says measles shot up in France beginning in November 2017, with nearly 6,000 new cases and five deaths since then. He says, in the last few years, he's had to convince some parents to vaccinate their children.

MAIDENBERG: It happened maybe once or twice that the mother would prefer to think that her love is enough for protecting to anything - car accident, German measle. So I would tell her, I can't be your pediatrician.

BEARDSLEY: But Maidenberg says things have improved significantly since the government made 11 vaccines mandatory, up from three. Before, the measles vaccine was simply strongly advised.


AGNES BUZYN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: That's French Health Minister Agnes Buzyn in a public service announcement. She says she cannot accept French children dying from diseases that are entirely preventable. Buzyn also said it's a matter of public health to protect those who can't be vaccinated, such as newborns. Still, the new requirement is not retroactive, so older children who were never vaccinated would still be uncovered. But the first statistics out since the new requirements came into effect in January 2018 show vaccination coverage for children born after that date has shot up to nearly 99% from 93%.


BEARDSLEY: Medical historian Laurent-Henri Vignaud says he believes the recent poll on French mistrust in vaccines is misleading and reflects, rather, French skepticism of the pharmaceutical industry. The French do generally rely on the state, he says. So when the government took a hard stand on vaccines...

VIGNAUD: (Through interpreter) In fact, it was a relief for a lot of parents because it was a transfer of responsibility. Until then, they had to decide about the vaccines. And when the state says that you have to do it, it's also taking responsibility for any problems.

BEARDSLEY: Vignaud says measles is particularly difficult to eradicate because it's extremely contagious, and the vaccine needs two doses to work. Add to that the fact that many parents consider measles a normal childhood disease.

Back in Dr. Maidenberg's waiting room, a young couple sits with their baby. Father Thierry Bisseliches says despite being the son of doctors, he was skeptical about vaccinating his own child.

THIERRY BISSELICHES: I heard it was, like, dangerous, that thing were hidden from us and that the whole thing was just like a business.

BEARDSLEY: After doing his own research, Bisseliches says he found the anti-vaccine lobby very conspiracy-oriented. He says he still has a few apprehensions about vaccinating his son, but he wants him to go to preschool.

BISSELICHES: I prefer to do it than not to do it.

BEARDSLEY: Historian Vignaud says anti-vaxxers have been around since Louis Pasteur discovered the rabies vaccine in the 1880s, but today, they have a bigger platform with the Internet. He says it's up to each country, based on its health care system and national culture, to find the best way to counter them.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.