In April, Laura Lisita, took her five-month-old baby, Alexandra to hospital. The little girl was suffering from an ear infection. A week later, Alexandra was better and returned home, but within a couple of days she was back in hospital. This time the diagnosis was measles and she would never recover.
Her mother, who lives in the small town of Lugoj in the west of Romania, believes Alexandra caught the disease during her first spell in hospital, as she passed through the same corridors and waiting rooms as the victims of the measles outbreak sweeping through the country.
“The nurses warned me that she might catch measles because the infection was in the hospital,” Laura told Euronews.
Alexandra was too young to be vaccinated but Laura is nevertheless convinced that a vaccination programme could and should have saved her life.
“She was too small and she caught this disease which some people consider ordinary. And I’m very upset with those who say they do not want to vaccinate their children, because not vaccinating your baby means the death of another one,” Laura warns.
‘I’m not scared’
The question is a sensitive one in Romania, as in many countries around the world, because parents insist on their right to decide how to care for their own children. However, the decisions of individuals in this respect can have wide ramifications for an entire generation.
The measles vaccine is commonly coupled with vaccines for mumps and rubella and known as MMR. To be fully effective it should be given in two doses, typically when the child is 12 months and then 5 years old. To provide sufficient protection to prevent outbreaks gaining hold, 95% of infants should participate, according to the World Health organisation. In Romania in 2016, 86 percent of children in the target age group were immunized for the first time and 67% received their follow up injection.
Cristiana Moldoveanu, 32, chose not to vaccinate her son, now 18 months old, against measles.
“I think he has to go through childhood diseases naturally for life time immunity and I am not scared by these maladies,” she told Euronews
“The epidemic leaves me cold. Since I was born, it’s an epidemic. At least, that’s what I heard from my mother,” she adds.
Cristiana also expresses doubts about the effectiveness of the vaccine and its risks, which are dismissed by medical experts but nevertheless have gained popular credence.
“The measles vaccine does not put in danger the life of any patient, it practically save the patient from the side effects of measles, rubella, or mumps,” says paediatric doctor Valeria Herdea, president of the Romanian Association for Paediatric Education in Family Medicine.
Vaccinated children are vulnerable only if they have not completed the programme or in exceptional cases where their immune system has been severely weakened by other factors, Dr Herdea points out.
It has not always been resistance from parents that is behind low vaccination rates, however.
Not enough vaccine
Laura Lisita, who lost her daughter Alexandra, also has a two-year-old son. He too caught measles after his sister went down with the disease because a shortage of vaccines in the region where he lived meant he had not been able to be immunised.
In February this year, during the massive measles outbreak, ten out of the 41 public health district authorities in Romania reported that they did not have anti-measles vaccines. This was despite a government campaign urging parents to take action to prevent measles.
“For a certain period, they didn’t have the vaccine,” says Laura. “Now I have managed to vaccinate him, but I was never against.”
Oana Grigore, a spokesperson for the Romanian Health Ministry, accepted that there had been issues around vaccine availability which she blames on a pan-European shortage linked to production.
She points out that 160,000 children were vaccinated in June and July another, 80,000 in August: “Vaccination is on an upward trend.”
Individual or collective choice?
Now, a “law of compulsory vaccination” is under public debate in Romania and, if adopted, it would make vaccination mandatory for kindergarten or school enrolment.
Recent protests were organized against the proposal, with opposition focused around the right to choose, rather than the questions around the vaccination itself.
Mother of two Daniela Pruna says she doesn’t want to give her children the vaccine and defends her right to decide: “I consider [the proposal] a Nazi law! A horrible abuse! My body is mine, my children are mine and it is my choice whether to vaccinate them or not. It is not the state that owns a person’s body.”
But Laura Lisita has an altogether different perspective:
“Life is not just what you see on TV and what you read on the internet.
“I would tell parents who do not vaccinate their children to go to the hospital to see how much a child with measles suffers, to see how his skin itches, to see how he coughs, to see how he breathes, to see a parent holding a mask against their baby’s face knowing that if it is removed, the child will die.
“Would a parent who sees another child in that condition have the courage to say: ‘I will not vaccinate my baby?’ Whoever has this courage is a criminal.”