Written by Staff Writer
Henry Hanks reports from Paris on how the populations across Europe are endangered by the co-existence of vaccinated children and unvaccinated youngsters. This story was originally published in CNN International on 5 April 2019.
From the ski slopes of the Alps to the beaches of the Mediterranean, hundreds of thousands of young Europeans are drifting out of school and working in the countryside.
They are Swiss, Germans, French, Italians, Britons, and French-born children who for years have been on their parents’ vaccination lists and in their school systems. Yet for these children the logical consequence of ongoing fears about childhood immunization has been to mean that fewer of them get a vaccination they are so desperately lacking.
Surveys put the number of European children who have been out of school or work because of their parents’ inability to immunize them at around 10%. Many of them are young French children who now risk serious infection in the country’s remote southern Alps, where temperatures regularly top 30˚C in July and August.
“Every year since 2015, I’ve taken summer vacations in the Alps,” says Pierre; who has also been seen in the French Alps. Pierre is in his early twenties and says he hasn’t been vaccinated for measles, polio or chickenpox for more than a decade.
“I’m out here skiing every summer with my friends, eating outdoors in the mountain cafes, but no measles shots,” he says.
Pharmacies know the long wait for a simple shot can be unbearable to some of their customers.
More than an economic burden
“Our patients come first and it’s stressful to sell an ounce of medicine on a busy day, especially when they’re not paying their bills on time,” says Alain Armas, who works in the pharmacy of Lyon in northern France.
When patients are found not to be up to date with their vaccinations, pharmacists say their assessment of their medical history is already so tricky it can be almost impossible to do a full and honest interview.
“The longer the lapse, the less reliable the information we get. It leaves us scratching our heads at the very least,” Armas said.
In some cases, that information often falls on deaf ears, Armas said, because children won’t comply.
“When they refuse, I call the hospital. They will put you on hold or reject your call. In all the countries I’ve been in, the hospital always makes sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
He says the delays cause problems beyond the pockets of difficult customers.
“Before I became a pharmacist, I worked in a general surgery where we would have a post-op coffee or a glass of water with the doctor and a patient. This way, I met patients as friends. You develop a relationship with people. It’s all important for the morale of the staff.”
Every year, Armas says patients are switched off the system with artificial causes.
“You’ll get the nurses saying to you ‘wait for the way.’ Or another person will say ‘this person’s not pregnant, tell them not to bring it up.’ Or you’ll have one mum telling another mum ‘I won’t bring it up so you don’t take any risks’ — or a few mothers would tell you, ‘I can’t wait any longer — there’s a school nursery and I need to give my children their shot.’
“If your customers follow your advice, you don’t need to go to the pharmacy every other week to send some medicines. But if they don’t, then you’re breaking down the customer.
“You lose that rapport,” he said.
Jinking into the countryside
The issue of vaccination awareness can be tough to quantify, but isn’t difficult to identify a counterculture among young European parents who prefer their children to live outside of health care circles.
Businesses and managers at ski resorts often see their employees sitting in classrooms that are full of pupils vaccinated for measles or polio.
“There’s a subtle de-viralization going on now. So a lot of people are bringing their unvaccinated children to school in the Alps,” says Armas.
For Pierre, that means he can be found sitting in his father’s basement furniture store in Avignon, helping his mother to repair a desk.