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In Vaccine-Skeptic France, Some Medics Also Hesitate

As the French government seeks to ramp up its lagging Covid-19 vaccination campaign, it faces a tricky challenge: convincing all doctors to back the jabs, even though some share the same hesitations as the general population.

PARIS (AFP) — As the French government seeks to ramp up its lagging Covid-19 vaccination campaign, it faces a tricky challenge: convincing all doctors to back the jabs, even though some share the same hesitations as the general population.

Despite France's record of pioneering vaccine work, surveys show it has become one of the most skeptical countries in the world after the emergence of a powerful "anti-vax" movement that has pushed conspiracy theories.

At the end of 2020, only 40% of French people planned to get inoculated against the coronavirus, while a new poll on Friday showed that the figure had risen to 56% — still far below the average of other developed countries.

Pierre Verger, a researcher who studies attitudes to vaccination among French GPs, published his latest data on Friday that revealed a smaller but significant level of hesitation among GPs.

Around half (47%) of 1,200 doctors surveyed declared that they would "certainly" get a Covid-19 jab, the study backed by the DREES public health research body found.

The rest expressed doubts to a greater or lesser extent: 29% said they would "probably" get vaccinated, while one in 10 (11%) would "probably not" or "definitely not." Another 14% did not answer, the research in October and November showed.

"We're a long way from having mass commitment and acceptance," Verger told AFP, saying the results confirmed those of a previous study in 2014. 

"If the level of hesitation among doctors does not go down, it will be a brake on the vaccination campaign under way," he added. 

This is a concern for the French government as it tries to accelerate after a slow start — but it has implications for all countries with significant public opposition to the new Covid-19 vaccines.

Verger said research in Belgium and French-speaking Canada showed broadly similar results among doctors to France, while only 50% of German nurses said they would get a vaccine in a December survey by the DGIIN and DIVI medical societies.

A nurse prepares a syringe with the Pfizer/Biontech COVID-19 vaccine at the CHC Landenne care home in Landenne-sur-Meuse, near Namur, Belgium, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. Vaccinations programs in the 27 nation-bloc have gotten off to a slow start and some EU members have been quick to blame the EU's executive arm for a perceived failure of delivering the right amount of doses. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)


France's government sees general practitioners playing a vital role in the campaign to vaccinate its population of more than 65 million because of their ability to cut through widespread misinformation.

Some of this has been sown by other medical professionals.

The makers of "Hold-up," a widely debunked French film about the coronavirus pandemic, featured Christian Perronne, head of an infectious diseases department at a hospital in northern France, who has since been removed from his position.

By implying the pandemic was a manufactured emergency to benefit pharmaceutical companies, Perronne has become a a top-selling author and a leading light in anti-vax circles, along with oncologist Henri Joyeux from the southern city of Montpellier.

Antoine Bristielle, a researcher who recently authored a report on vaccine skepticism for the Jean-Jaures Foundation, a think-tank, said doctors are trusted to combat these views in a way that politicians and national scientific institutions are not.

"In France, people place a lot of confidence in their GPs to get information about vaccines," he told AFP. "If your GP says 'go and get vaccinated,' it's a powerful message. On the other hand, if they are hesitating themselves, it can increase skepticism." 

Overall, the survey published by DREES on Friday showed that half of doctors would "certainly" recommend the new jabs and 29% "probably," while around one in five (21%) were either opposed or did not give an answer.

Faced with fierce criticism over the low numbers of people inoculated so far — around 45,000 since late December — the government is now pivoting to a strategy of opening up hundreds of mass vaccination centers nationally. 

Dr. Arnaud Spielman, left, gets the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in a Strasbourg clinic, eastern France, Tuesday, Jan.5, 2021. Amid public outcry, France's health minister promised Tuesday an "exponential" acceleration of his country's shockingly slow coronavirus vaccination process. After barely 500 people in France were vaccinated in the first six days, Health Minister Olivier Veran defended the government's strategy of giving the vaccines first to residents of nursing homes. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

'Is it safe?'

Verger and Bristielle say they believe doctors will grow more confident if the government continues to be transparent with studies and data, a view endorsed by Paris-based infectious diseases specialist Solen Kerneis.

She said she felt "emotional" and delighted this week after administering her first jab to a nurse colleague at the Bichat public hospital in Paris. 

But she understands why some colleagues might be hesitating.

"The main question posed by a vaccine that has been developed so quickly is 'is it safe?'" she told AFP. "As a scientist myself, I asked myself questions. I read scientific reports that reassured me. Our work is to explain, while being transparent." 

© Agence France-Presse

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