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Why Belgians, Italians, Spanish, and Swiss are coming to France for monkeypox vaccine

Hundreds of Europeans have crossed borders for the monkeypox vaccine, sparking calls to address a gaping inequality in access to doses between nations.

Why Belgians, Italians, Spanish, and Swiss are coming to France for monkeypox vaccine
A pharmacist administers a dose of Imvanex, a vaccine to protect against Monkeypox, at a pharmacy in Lille, northern France (Photo by FRANCOIS LO PRESTI / AFP)

The current outbreak began in Europe in May, when the virus began spreading rapidly outside areas in Africa where it has long been endemic.

The virus, which is rarely fatal but can cause extremely painful lesions, has overwhelmingly affected men who have sex with men, some of whom have sought to swiftly get vaccinated.

However some countries have had much larger and quicker rollouts of the only approved vaccine for monkeypox, a smallpox jab produced by Danish firm Bavarian Nordic and marketed in Europe as Imvanex.

Belgium, for example, has just 3,000 doses, which are only available to LGBT sex workers, men who have sex with men with sexually transmitted infections or HIV, and some rare contact cases.

But neighbouring France has far more doses. While the exact number is unknown, more than 53,000 doses have already been administered in the country.

READ MORE: France opens monkeypox vaccinedrome

During the European summer many Belgians have popped over the border to get a jab.

Pharmacist Virginie Ceyssac said that 30 to 40 percent of those who had been vaccinated at her Aprium pharmacy in the northern French city of Lille were Belgians.

‘Very warm’ welcome

Samy Soussi of the Brussels-based HIV association ExAequo said that “thanks to word of mouth, we knew that it was possible for Belgians to be vaccinated in France”.

ExAequo even contacted Lille’s vaccination centre to organise carpooling for Belgians to attend a jab rollout day on August 6.

“444 Belgians were vaccinated that morning,” Soussi said, adding they were given a “very warm” welcome.

Around 90 percent of those vaccinated on the day were from Belgium, Lille’s town hall told AFP.

The Hauts-de-France region’s health agency said that its vaccination centres are asked to “respond favourably to requests from Belgian border residents, provided that it does not affect access to vaccinations for the French”.

In France’s capital, vaccinations have also been available for people from outside the country.

“Foreign tourists have taken advantage of their trip to get vaccinated,” said Checkpoint Paris, a sexual health centre dedicated to LGBT people.

However on France’s southern borders, Italians and Spaniards have been very much in the minority for vaccinations, according to local HIV organisations.

Switzerland meanwhile has had zero vaccine doses of its own, though the government bowed to growing criticism by announcing on Wednesday that it would buy 100,000 doses.

Lacking any local doses, “some people have gone to France to get vaccinated without any problems, but others have been refused,” said Alexandra Calmy, head of the HIV unit at Geneva University Hospitals.

Thomas, a 32-year-old in the Swiss town of Montreux, told AFP he spent a fortnight trying to get a vaccination appointment in France.

He eventually managed get an appointment in the eastern French city of Besancon.

“I’ve taken a day off work, I’m going to rent a car and drive,” he said.

‘Expensive and unfair’

A vaccination centre in the French Alpine town of Chambery in the Savoie department refused to give him an appointment.

“We only take people who live in Savoie,” local doctor Silvere Biavat told AFP.

The centre has been “overwhelmed with calls from Swiss people” and has had to turn them away due to a lack of resources, he added.

The French health ministry’s DGS directorate said it was up to vaccination sites whether they administer doses to foreigners.

After being denied an appointment in France, Sergio, a 41-year-old who lives in Geneva, looked farther afield. First he tried in his native Portugal, then in the United States, before finally getting an appointment in London.

“I paid almost 600 euros for a last-minute flight from Geneva to London,” he said.

“It’s expensive and it’s unfair because not everyone can do this… but everyone is afraid” of monkeypox, he said.

The inequality in access has spurred organisations and healthcare professionals across Europe to call for new diplomatic agreements for doses to be shared with countries in need.

“It is not logical that countries like France, Germany and the Netherlands have a great number of the vaccines” while countries like Spain — one of the world’s worst-hit countries — only has 17,000 doses, said Toni Poveda, director of the Spanish HIV organisation CESIDA.

Marc Dixneuf, head of French group AIDES, said that “epidemics don’t pay much attention to borders”.

“What we want is a concerted response at the European level, within the World Health Organization and not just European Union — because we have to include Switzerland,” he said.

French health authorities said they are in contact with Belgium and Switzerland to discuss cross-border monkeypox vaccinations, including financing.

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COVID-19 VACCINES

Italy’s deputy health minister under fire after casting doubt on Covid vaccines

Opposition leaders called for health undersecretary Marcello Gemmato to resign on Tuesday after the official said he was not "for or against" vaccines.

Italy's deputy health minister under fire after casting doubt on Covid vaccines

Gemmato, a pharmacist and member of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party, made the remark during an appearance on the political talkshow ReStart on Rai 2 on Monday evening.

READ ALSO: Covid vaccines halved Italy’s death toll, study finds

In a widely-shared clip, the official criticises the previous government’s approach to the Covid pandemic, claiming that for a large part of the crisis Italy had the highest death rate and third highest ‘lethality’ rate (the proportion of Covid patients who died of the disease).

When journalist Aldo Cazzullo interjects to ask whether the toll would have been higher without vaccines, Gemmato responds: “that’s what you say,” and claimed: “We do not have the reverse burden of proof.”

The undersecretary goes on to say that he won’t “fall into the trap of taking a side for or against vaccines”.

After Gemmato’s comments, the president of Italy’s National Federation of Medical Guilds, Filippo Anelli, stressed that official figures showed the Italian vaccination campaign had already prevented some 150,000 deaths, slashing the country’s potential death toll by almost half.

Vaccines also prevented eight million cases of Covid-19, over 500,000 hospitalisations, and more than 55,000 admissions to intensive care, according to a report from Italy’s national health institute (ISS) in April 2021.

Gemmato’s comments provoked calls for him to step down, including from the head of the centre-left Democratic Party, Enrico Letta.

“A health undersecretary who doesn’t take his distance from no-vaxxers is certainly in the wrong job” wrote the leader of the centrist party Action, Carlo Calenda, on Twitter.

Infectious disease expert Matteo Bassetti of Genoa’s San Martino clinic also expressed shock.

“How is it possible to say that there is no scientific proof that vaccines have helped save the lives of millions of people? You just have to read the scientific literature,” Bassetti tweeted. 

In response to the backlash, Gemmato on Tuesday put out a statement saying he believes “vaccines are precious weapons against Covid” and claiming that his words were taken out of context and misused against him.

The Brothers of Italy party was harshly critical of the previous government’s approach to handling the Covid crisis, accusing the former government of using the pandemic as an excuse to “limit freedom” through its use of the ‘green pass’, a proof of vaccination required to access public spaces. 

But since coming into power, Meloni appears to have significantly softened her stance.

Her appointee for health minister, Orazio Schillaci, is a medical doctor who formed part of the team advising the Draghi administration on its handling of the pandemic.

Schillaci, a former dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery at Rome’s Tor Vergata University, has described the former government’s green pass scheme as an “indispensable tool for guaranteeing safety in university classrooms”.

Speaking at a session of the G20 on Tuesday, Meloni referenced the role of vaccines in bringing an end to the Covid pandemic.

“Thanks to the extraordinary work of health personnel, vaccines, prevention, and the accountability of citizens, life has gradually returned to normal,’ the prime minister said in a speech.

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