Alongside Italy, France is one of the last countries in Europe to enforce the mandatory vaccination of children against illnesses such as tetanus, polio, and diphtheria — a trio of very serious infectious diseases.
On Thursday, Samia and Marc Larère, parents to two children, appeared before a court in the French district of Yonne to face charges of refusing to have their eldest daughter vaccinated.
"We are being accused of breaking the law. A law that makes inoculations against those illnesses mandatory for all children," Larère told VICE News. "This is known as 'vaccine refusal.' Something the French State considers a form of child abuse."
Mistrust of vaccines is a reoccurring topic in the French public debate on health. Suspicion has been fueled by rare health-related scandals, such as the recent one involving Gardasil — a vaccine used in the fight against cervical cancer.
Interviewed the same day by I>TELE, French Health and Social Affairs Minister Marisol Touraine called to put an end to the vaccine scare.
"We have vaccines to thank for the elimination of certain diseases in our country and on our planet," she said. "Polio is a disease that is starting to reappear. Syria is at risk of an epidemic."
The minister shared her concern over the mistrust and defiance that characterize the anti-vaccine movement. According to Larère, the parents' mistrust centers overwhelmingly on the additives found in vaccines.
"In the end, we ordered vaccines that don't contain additives, directly from the pharmaceuticals group Sanofi," he said. "However, they contained Thiomersal, which is mercury, a substance that has been banned since 1999.
"Vaccines are the ultimate myth of our society — a myth maintained by the large pharmaceutical laboratories. People need to familiarize themselves with the hundreds of reports penned by renowned researchers. They don't necessarily go hand-in-hand with what the main French pharmaceutical labs are saying. This topic is marred by tremendous self-censorship, even though what we're dealing with is large-scale poisoning," he said.
Larère also highlighted that France stands alone with its vaccination policy, which is in no case watertight. According to French radio station France Info, 3 to 5 percent of kids in France are not inoculated with the mandatory vaccines. One way to circumvent the requirement is to find a doctor willing to forge a vaccination certificate — a practice confirmed by numerous French forums on the subject. This was not a route chosen by the two parents in question. Larère shed some light on how the matter ended up in court.
"When we went to the hospital for our child's nine-month checkup, the pediatrician told us that he would have to flag us up to the Mother and Infant Protection Program," he said. "The PMI passed the information along to the prosecutor, who filed the case. Our attorney has just filed a Priority Preliminary Ruling on Constitutionality."
The appeal, which has gone through, allows the couple to bring the case before a higher legal authority, and the issue will now be addressed by the French Constitutional Court. This has opened debate on mandatory vaccinations, echoing a request by the French High Council for Public Health (HCSP) to revisit the question. Back in early September, HSCP published an online report highlighting the policy's shortfalls:
"The HCSP finds the current public infrastructure handling vaccinations to be complex, unclear and discriminatory. […] The HCSP considers that the enforcement or not of the policy of mandatory vaccinations for the general population is a matter for society to determine, and one deserving of a debate, to be organized by the authorities."
Speaking to VICE News upon leaving court, Larère said he felt confident.
"At least we'll no longer be treated like abusive parents, since the question is now in the public sphere," he said.
Virgile Dall'Armellina contributed to this article.
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