When the government of France announced an increase in the number of mandatory vaccines for children in 2017, it sparked outrage among the country’s growing vaccine skeptics.
At the time, only three childhood vaccines — diphtheria, tetanus, and polio — were mandatory in order to enroll children in nurseries, schools, and summer camps. The new announcement meant that hepatitis, influenza, and measles vaccines — which up until then were merely “recommended” — would become mandatory, too.
France has the lowest levels of trust in vaccines globally as 1 out of every 3 people in the country believe that immunization is unsafe.
As people made clear their opposition to the government’s decision, some French speakers like Michel* learned about the anti-vaccine movement and its followers known as anti-vaxxers.
Michel, a father and concerned citizen, reached out to a vaccine organization he found through Facebook, offering to volunteer to help inform people about vaccines — only to realize he had actually contacted an anti-vaccination group.
“When you look at the group, it looks very official. It's very tricky,” Michel told Global Citizen. “If you go here and ask about vaccinations, you think you will get official information, but it’s the opposite.”
The group administrators tried to persuade Michel that vaccines were dangerous. When he refused to relent, they booted him out — but not before he had connected with another like-minded person from the group.
Together, they decided to start Les Vaxxeuses (French for “the vaxxers”), an anonymous group that provides evidence-based information about vaccines and engages with the general public through their Facebook and Twitter pages.
As the pages began gaining traction, the founders received messages from other online advocates that were kicked out of anti-vaccination groups and wanted to join Les Vaxxeuses. Within months, the two vaccine advocates grew into a team of 15 volunteers, who now run the group’s online presence and engage French-speakers internationally in conversations around vaccines.
France has the lowest levels of trust in vaccines globally as 1 out of every 3 people in the country believe that immunization is unsafe. Les Vaxxeuses is anonymous group that provides evidence-based information about vaccines through social media.
The group shares what Michel calls “the very worst of what we find on anti-vax pages.” The moderators behind Les Vaxxeuses take screenshots of online anti-vaccine conversations and repost them, using humour as a tactic to dispel anti-science beliefs.
“There are a lot of funny theories. Some people say the Earth is flat. That’s funny and that’s it. There is no problem believing that,” Michel said. “But anti-vaxxers are different. What they do is dangerous. There is a real risk.”
Despite the availability of a safe, effective vaccine, France has seen a resurgence of measles and mumps outbreaks in recent years due to rising anti-vaccine sentiments. According to official figures, more than 24,000 measles cases were reported in France between 2008 and 2016. This led to 1,500 serious complications and 10 deaths.
“If the vaccine coverage gets too low, there is a real risk … and who will be hurt? They are the weakest people in our society — they are the babies, the elderly people, and the [sick],” Michel said.
Posts on the group's page reach around 150,000 people every week in French-speaking countries including France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Canada. Behind Les Vaxxeuses is a team of 15 moderators, who range from 30 to 60 years old, according to Michel.
Since starting the group in 2017, Michel said there have been a handful of people who have messaged to share that their views on vaccinations have changed because of Les Vaxxeuses. More often, he receives messages from people who want resources to help persuade friends or family about the importance of vaccines.
Posts on the Les Vaxxeuses page reach around 150,000 people every week in French-speaking countries including France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Canada. Behind the group is a team of 15 moderators who range from 30 to 60 years of age.
Michel, who works from home, always leaves the Vaxxeuses page open in a browser tab. He monitors comments throughout the day, whether he is taking transit or watching TV, spending about three to four hours daily on this voluntary work.
And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The anti-vax movement is something we think is very dangerous and it has to be fought. No one is doing it, so we are doing it,” he said.
One of the moderators, Theresa*, is a biologist who joined the team two years ago, drawn by the fact that she feels there is a “very low level of scientific knowledge in the general population.”
“The perception of the public is that scientists are dangerous people and I don’t feel dangerous to anybody,” she told Global Citizen.
Theresa, who ensures the accuracy of information shared by Les Vaxxeuses, is concerned that misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines will result in less uptake of the vaccine, which will prolong the health, social, and economic effects of the pandemic.
“I am really suffering being in my home [during the lockdowns]. We cannot live like that,” she said. “Honestly, I am terrified. I am really terrified.”
Prior to COVID-19, it was estimated that vaccines save 2 to 3 million people every single year. Routine vaccination programs have been especially successful when it comes to reducing childhood mortality rates as more children become protected against illnesses like measles, pneumonia, cholera, and diphtheria.
*Les Vaxxeuses is an anonymous group that protects the identities of those involved to prevent negative commentary from the anti-vaxx community. The moderators’ names in the above article have been changed to protect their identity.
If 2020 has taught us anything about global health, it’s the importance of vaccines. The World's Best Shot is a profile series dedicated to sharing the stories of vaccine activists around the world.