Metropolitan Community Clinic at Helliniko area, providing voluntary and free medical assistance to the uninsured and the poor, Athens, Greece, December 2014, Photo: A.Christofilopoulos

Non-Conformist Parenting And The Vaccination Choice

Reports show that the anti-vaccination trend in Greece has been growing recently.

In a pocket sized guide book published in 1938 by Whitman Publishing Company, under the title “Wonders of the World, completely illustrated”, the pyramids of Egypt, the Colosseum of Rome, the Greatest Reflecting Telescope in California and the Panama Canal, are considered among the greatest human achievements in history.

As the author, Rense Kolvaard, notes in the introduction “we of the twentieth century are surrounded by so many wonders”, and while modern engineering and machinery are visually impressive and could easily be pictured in the book, he didn’t pass over the scientific marvels of chemistry and medicine, such as “the X-ray, the modern surgery, vaccination”.

“Any of them surpasses in ingenuity all of the ancient and medieval wonders” the author wrote 80 years ago, but his 1938 views would later be questioned by some among us of the twenty-first century.

While hardly someone doubts the significance of the Colosseum, quite a few people nowadays choose not to get vaccinated due to an alleged risk of vaccination –or they make this choice on behalf of their children.

Woman with smallpox and vaccinated infant. Smallpox, or variola, was an infectious, highly contagious disease caused by a Variola virus. Due to vaccination campaigns in the 19th and 20th centuries, the World Health Organization certified its eradication in 1980. [Date unknown, Photo ID: Reeve 32486, Source: National Museum of Health and Medicine, Otis Historical Archives]

A growing trend

The anti-vaccination trend in Greece has been growing recently, as numerous incidents, reports and medical sources show. According to an article published by the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention on July 2017 with the title “Challenging Vaccines: the cost of their success”, although, comparing to the similar trends in West Europe, USA and Japan, skepticism towards vaccines in Greece is not yet depicted in large numbers of un-vaccinated population, an anti-vaccine movement grows steadily.

At the moment there are more than 300 Greek websites promoting anti-vaccine arguments, with the most common to be that they actually destroy immunity, have serious side effects and the only cause they serve is profit (for the pharmaceutical companies). The elimination of infectious diseases that don’t exist even as a memory anymore (exactly because of vaccination) and a generalized notion against medical paternalism boosted by the increased amount of information parents have now access to, are considered among the reasons that explain the anti-vaccination trends.

On May 2017, Greek Minister of Health Andreas Xanthos, said that in order to deal with the growing anti-vaccination movement, the Ministry considers to have parents to declare in writing their choice not to vaccinate their kids and attach this document to the children’s sickness booklet to make it public, as vaccination in Greece is not compulsory.

Parents who don’t vaccinate

Evi and Manos, parents of 5-years old Niki, have decided not to fully vaccinate her, a decision that was also supported by their pediatrician. Talking with the couple about parenting, one can notice a liberal, non-repressive and free-spirited approach.

In many cases, they have made less ordinary decisions regarding their child’s upbringing. Such as giving birth at home with the assistance of a midwife, breastfeeding until the age of four, or replacing antibiotics and other medicine with homeopathy’s remedies, when in sickness.

The couple differentiates itself from the total vaccine deniers. Their daughter has been vaccinated for tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough (DTaP) as well as for meningococcus, but not for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR).

While they don’t correlate vaccines to autism -the most common claim of the anti-vaccine devotees, they believe that vaccines are too “heavy” for a baby’s developing immune system and needless when it lives in a protected, sanitized environment. They chose which vaccines were the most needed, according to their own criteria. However, apart from health concerns, their choice to not vaccinate has ideological routes.

“Our approach is that people should achieve emancipation towards the illness. This means we shouldn’t think that the doctor is an omniscient that can alone have the responsibility for one’s health”, says Evi and Manos continues: “We should take the responsibility of ourselves, our heath and illness. I am convinced that the existing medical regime mainly promotes illness and dependence. Take, for example, the elderly in Greece who each have a cupboard full of drugs. They are essentially chemically dependent”.

Loss of trust

According to the Hellenic Center for Disease Control & Prevention (HCDCP), Greece is one of the European countries with the highest levels of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and has the highest consumption of antibiotics.

Source: European Commission

Why Greeks take a lot of antibiotics can have various explanations. One could be the not-so-transparent links of the Greek health sector and pharmaceutical companies and the willingness of doctors to promote specific medical treatments in return of generous benefits.

Claims or proofs of corruption in the medical sector have shaped a hostile attitude towards medical specialists and the established medical system. In some cases, reasonable indignation is boosted with information of questionable validity, not to mention hoaxes, about vaccines and medicine in general and it results in a dispute with science itself.

“The very first strong vaccine a child receives, is the passing through its mother’s vagina”, says Evi, an advocate of natural delivery. Although this is scientifically wrong and in some cases this passing can be even dangerous for the newborn, again, this kind of “romanticisation” or exaltation of natural childbirth is probably not irrelevant to Greece’s high rates of cesarean sections, suggested or imposed by doctors even where there is no medical need to.

Parenting frustration

Bombarded with information, now more than ever, today’s Greek parents seem to go through a path of parenting where the authorities are no longer the doctors, or the teachers as it used to be when they were kids.

Apostolos Sabaziotis, psychologist and family therapist, notes this generalized existed crisis towards traditional institutions and adds: “We have observed the evolution of the Greek family since 1960 until today. And until the end of 1990s, it was very clear to us to see what is that characterizes the Greek family. We had a picture of the ’60s when the family was more traditional, the roles were fixed. Now we lack a clear image. New parents are frustrated, they have different parenting models to compromise”.

Seeking for a way to deal with this frustration, adoption of new trends challenges the existed norms and provides new parents with a sense that they do it better than their own parents. Non-vaccination may seem to Evi and Manos as an evolution of the way parents should treat their children, because they are not taking anything they were taught for granted.

Post-modern conspiracy theories and scientific facts

As Apostolos Sabaziotis puts it “Everyone now has their own truth. It may sound post-modern and dangerous, but this is today’s case”. While Evi and Manos seem to have the will to challenge what has been established, their views are often based on uncertain facts and unreliable bibliography. “Many people that believe in conspiracy theories are not of a certain psychopathology. Conspiracy thinking has somehow been exonerated”, the psychologist concludes.

Speaking of facts, World Health Organisation’s 2017 report on epidemiological data for Europe, shows Greece having the fourth position in the top 10 countries with measles cases, following Romania, Ukraine and Italy.

According to HCDCP’s professor of Pathology and Infectious Diseases, Sotiris Tsiodras, 95% of Greece’s 967 reported measles cases in 2017, were not fully (the MMR vaccine has 2 doses) or not-at-all vaccinated. The possibility of getting infected after being vaccinated is less than 4%. Mr. Tsiodras highlights that the number of infected people has grown rapidly in the first months of 2018 and one more death has added to the two deadly measles cases of 2017 in Greece.

Non-conformist parenting can have various interpretations. Evi and Manos don’t vaccinate their daughter, because they think vaccination might harm her. Many of the parents that make the same choice are thought to be progressive.

However non-vaccination views have a varied tank of supporters and west non-vaccinators seem to have found some unlikely “allies”: In Nigeria, Pakistan and Afganistan, there are reported cases of extremists killing medical stuff that attempted vaccination. The Taliban’s anti-vaccine campaign targets to end “the ploy by the US to render recipients impotent or infertile, and reduce the population of Muslims”, as it reads in a Guardian’s report from 2016.

The epidemiological statistics are certain: it is not origin, cultural background or a specific parenting paradigm that prevent illnesses. But, there are good news: it can be the antigens that the vaccines contain.

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