As H1N1 vaccination programs ramp up around the world, France faces an unusual challenge: there's plenty of vaccine but French people--and in particular French medical staff--are refusing vaccination.
This is due partly to the specific fear that the vaccines might not be entirely safe, partly to a generalized distrust of French health officials due to previous scandals, and partly to a Gallic weakness for conspiracy theories.(for more from my Paris Weblog click here)
1. If the vaccines are safe, why are doctors refusing to get vaccinated?
Fear focuses on additives to the vaccine.
While in the USA, the decision was taken NOT to use additives to boost immune response, in France, the government purchased 94 million doses of vaccines, most with additives then refused to communicate clearly and honestly about the exact nature of contracts worth nearly one billion euros.
The government's muddled message: some of additives were well-known; while some had been tested less. Patients may neither choose their vaccine nor even obtain information about what it contains. Trust us.
As a result, French medical personal has refused vaccination. And normal citizens are not reassured.
Clearly French doctors and medical staff do not trust the government not to poison them. Why?
Health scandals in the not-so distant past are partly to blame. These include: contaminated blood, contaminated growth hormone, the decision to protect the nuclear industry instead of citizens during Chenobyl, and the disastrous response to the heat wave of 2003.
AIDS: Thousands of entirely avoidable deaths were caused by French officials' attempt to promote the French HIV-screening industry: blood supplies continued to be contaminated by HIV AFTER American screening technology became available because health officials wanted a French solution. See Time article.
GROWTH HORMONE : 117 gratuitous deaths, mostly of children, from Creuztfeldt-Jacob disease due to use of contaminated tissue in the lucrative manufacture of growth hormone. Half of the deathtoll worldwide was in France.
CHENOBYL LIES : To protect the nuclear industry the French goverment claimed that the radioactive cloud from Chenobyl had miraculously avoided France. The evening news showed entirely false maps and French government officials blatantly lied that there were no health concerns. No precautions of any kind were taken to reduce the public's exposure.
HEATWAVE: The stunningly inept response to the heat wave of 2003 which caused 15,000 more deaths than usual in France. Procedures have changed and one air-conditioned room is now required in institutions housing the elderly; however the most visible result in my town was the disappearance of death notices from municipal publications. (Previously published automatically as public information, this information is now considered privileged: a family member must make a request.)
The idea of collusion finds fertile soil in France, which loves conspiracy theories. A (disgusting) book claiming that 9/11 was all an American-fabricated conspiracy and that no plane ever hit the Pentagon was a mega-best-seller in France. (A polytechnicien colleague of mine praised it for revealing the truth.)
The idea that French health officials would deliberately expose the people to a dangerous vaccine in order to boost pharmaceutical companies' profits is widespread, especially among the educated classes.
The result: tens of millions of doses of vaccine are available in France but people are afraid to get vaccinated.
Funny observation: in hospitals and doctors' offices, magazines have been removed from waiting rooms as disease vectors. But unvaccinated French doctors continue to shake hands with all their patients, including (like me) the coughing ones.
Click here for Center for Disease Control Update on H1N1