For the French, distrust of vaccines predates COVID-19

For the French, distrust of vaccines predates COVID-19

Why We Wrote This

France is a leading cultural and scientific nation. So why are the French also one of the most skeptical publics in the West when it comes to vaccines, and the COVID-19 vaccine in particular?

Bob Edme/AP

People arrive to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination against COVID-19 at a vaccination center in Bayonne, France, Jan. 18, 2021.

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January 20, 2021

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Anti-vaccine sentiment in France is at one of the highest rates in the world. Between 2% and 10% of French people are considered die-hard anti-vaccination while experts put those who are “vaccine hesitant” between 25% and 70%.

The pandemic has only served to highlight the phenomenon. A 15-country survey conducted by Ipsos and the World Economic Forum at the end of December showed that France had the lowest rate of intent to receive the COVID-19 vaccine of those polled, at 40%, compared with China’s 80%.

Behind the reticence are previous public health scandals involving both vaccines and medications, which have eroded public trust.

“There is a real correlation between vaccine refusal, and resistance against political and scientific institutions,” says Antoine Bristielle, a political scientist at the Foundation Jean-Jaurès think tank. He says that trust in such institutions had been dropping even before the pandemic, but scientific institutions have seen a staggering fall – from 90% to 70% – since the pandemic began.

“There is a section of the population that can still be convinced,” says Mr. Bristielle. “But they demand transparency in terms of the potential side effects and the risk of financial collusion between the government and pharmaceutical companies.”

Paris

The longer Margot Morin sat at the University Hospital in Reims waiting for the COVID-19 jab, the more doubt crept in. A colleague next to her had a brief negative reaction to the vaccine, her blood pressure climbing and her fingers tingling.

“I thought, ‘Oh là là, I’m next,’” says Ms. Morin, who is a physical therapy aide in her 50s and recently qualified to get the vaccine. “I was very skeptical. The hospital asked me if I wanted to get it and I took the day to think about it. There’s so much we still don’t know about the long-term effects.”

But Ms. Morin has worked with numerous patients who later tested positive for COVID-19. Her husband is 10 years older and her parents are in their 90s. She ultimately decided to get the vaccine to protect those around her.

“I definitely had doubts before getting it, and still do,” says Ms. Morin. “But if we want to get out of this pandemic, people need to make a decision.”

Anti-vaccine sentiment in France is at one of the highest rates in the world. A 2018 Gallup-Wellcome Trust survey of more than 140 countries showed that France had the lowest level of trust in vaccines, with a third disagreeing that they were safe.


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The pandemic has only served to highlight the phenomenon. A 15-country survey conducted by Ipsos and the World Economic Forum at the end of December showed that France had the lowest rate of intent to receive the COVID-19 vaccine of those polled, at 40%, compared with China’s 80%. Between 2% and 10% of French people are considered die-hard anti-vaccination while experts put those who are “vaccine hesitant” between 25% and 70%.

Behind the reticence are previous public health scandals involving both vaccines and medications, which have eroded public trust in political and scientific institutions. And a tendency toward skepticism and discomfort with change, considered distinctive French traits, have made the vaccine rollout here challenging.

“We need to differentiate between French people who are anti-vaccination and vaccine hesitant,” says Patrick Peretti-Watel, a sociologist of public health and risk management at the French National Institute for Medical Research (INSERM).

“Those who are hesitant are not necessarily for or against, but demand reflection. It’s quite healthy in this situation where we don’t have all the answers. But we need to gain people’s confidence and teach them that until we vaccinate everyone, and think in terms of the good of the group and not the individual, we can’t have a better daily life.”

Hesitancy and hostility toward vaccines

Gaining public trust in mass vaccination campaigns is a hard sell in France. After an upsurge in cases of multiple sclerosis in the 1990s, many blamed the countrywide vaccine campaign against hepatitis B a decade earlier – even if a scientific link between the two was never formally drawn.

In 2009, Mediator, a weight-loss pill prescribed to diabetics, was taken off the market after revelations that it may have contributed to the death of up to 2,000 people. And in January 2010, the French government was forced to cancel 50 million doses of the swine flu vaccine after it found itself with an oversupply, costing hundreds of millions of euros.

Vaccine hesitancy and refusal have also been fueled by France’s extreme political and medical voices. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen and far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon have both publicly stated that they were hesitant about the COVID-19 jab, preferring to wait for more “traditional” methods.

And the controversial doctor Didier Raoult, who has pushed the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 and is often featured in the mainstream press, has been a loudspeaker for the anti-vaccine movement.

“I have never been scared of getting COVID,” says Marie Werbregue, president of the nonprofit Info Vaccins France. Ms. Werbregue is against vaccines in general and the COVID-19 shot in particular, and says vaccines played a role in her daughter developing autism. “What bothers me is having my personal liberties taken away like this.”

The current vaccination effort wasn’t helped when, early in the pandemic, the French government discouraged anyone other than sick people or front-line medical workers from wearing masks. It was later revealed that the request was made because the national mask stockpile was too low to supply the public, who felt lied to by the government according to polls.

“There is a real correlation between vaccine refusal, and resistance against political and scientific institutions,” says Antoine Bristielle, a political scientist at the Foundation Jean-Jaurès think tank. He says that trust in such institutions had been dropping even before the pandemic, but scientific institutions have seen a staggering fall – from 90% to 70% – since the pandemic began.

“There is a section of the population that can still be convinced, that aren’t 100% resistant to the idea of the vaccine,” says Mr. Bristielle. “But they demand transparency in terms of the potential side effects and the risk of financial collusion between the government and pharmaceutical companies.”

“I understand the reticence”

France has had one of the slowest vaccine rollouts, compared with countries that have begun inoculations. As of Jan. 19, France had vaccinated just under 600,000 people, while in neighboring Germany more than 1 million have been inoculated. The United Kingdom has administered a first dose to over 4 million.

France’s sluggish vaccine campaign, combined with growing fears of the British and South African variants of the virus, are slowly pushing the French toward vaccine acceptance. In a poll last week, 56% now say they intend to get vaccinated.

One social media campaign has been trying to shore up public trust even before the current pandemic. The Facebook group Les Vaxxeuses has been publicizing the importance of vaccines and the dangers of fake news since 2017.

“We teach people to verify the information they receive, offer links that explain things, or how to question the balance between benefit and risk,” says Pierre, a member of Les Vaxxeuses who does not reveal his name to the media after receiving death threats for his work. “It’s pretty hard to budge those who are totally anti-vaccine. But those who are hesitant? That’s where it can work.”

Pierre says French people are naturally resistant to change, but that people will come around as more and more get the inoculation, producing a snowball effect – especially if France can kick-start its vaccine campaign and catch up with its European neighbors.

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Patrice Morin, Margot’s husband, says that seeing his wife get the vaccine and leave with just some slight arm soreness has helped assuage his doubts. Now retired, he used to work as a nurse and received one of the first, now infamous, hepatitis B vaccines.

“It took a decade for that vaccine to be required for the general population, so I understand the reticence behind getting a vaccine that is so new,” says Mr. Morin, who doesn’t yet qualify for the COVID-19 vaccine. “When they offer me the [COVID-19] vaccine, I’m going to say yes, but not without a bit of doubt in the back of my mind. I trust what doctors are saying, but when it comes to the long-term side effects, we just don’t know.”

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