By Sandy K. Johnson

France countered a lackadaisical attitude toward vaccines by passing a law in 2017 making immunization of children mandatory.

The sledgehammer approach followed a drop in immunizations after a public controversy about a flu vaccine shortage in 2009 and after a measles outbreak in 2011. The law applies to all children under 2 years old and eliminated all exemptions.

Marie-Paule Kieny, director of research at Inserm (the French equivalent of the U.S. National Institutes of Health), used France as a case study to help journalists better understand how vaccine hesitancy can emerge.

“We have reversed the tide of low coverage,” Kieny said.

If the anti-vaxxers held sway in an educated country like France, what can happen in less-developed countries? The share of people who believe vaccines are safe is lowest in the former Soviet Union states (Ukraine being the prime example).

Kieny said the difference is trust in government (and thus science) and also education. And if people don’t believe the government, they are overwhelmingly willing to trust doctors and nurses, who are the primary source of trusted health information.

Kieny cautioned National Press Foundation fellows about the effect of “falsely balanced reporting.”

“It’s good to present two sides of the coin. But if you present it to give the same value to the two sides, you are likely to drive readers in one direction,” she said.

Kieny said the health community is still recovering from the bad autism-vaccine study published by unsuspecting journalists two decades ago. One result was the rise of anti-vaxxers who have nurtured fear of adverse effects and recruited celebrities to their cause.

She said health officials can counter the vaccine hesitancy movement by making immunizations compulsory, engaging with journalists to relay positive messages about vaccines, and educating health professionals about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.