“Stick without a Carrot”: An Anthropological Analysis of the Daily Press on Mandatory MMR Immunization in Serbia

  • Marija Brujić Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade
Keywords:
MMR vaccination, the Republic of Serbia, measles epidemics 2014-15 and 2017-18, daily press

Abstract

The vaccine is considered in academic, foremost medical, but also in political and public discourse as one of the greatest human achievements. Immunization has saved and is saving millions of lives around the world. However, from a historical perspective, immunization was always followed by more or less public resistance due to its alleged negative side-effects, such as outbursts of severe illnesses. A mandatory childhood vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) is part of the current controversy over the harmfulness of vaccines in Serbia. In view of the fact that the media is an important source for transmitting health messages and understanding health issues, the subject of this paper is the media presentation of MMR immunization in Serbia. How was the state health care narrative on MMR immunization presented in the Serbian daily press during the last two measles outbreaks in 2014-2015 and 2017-2018? By using the theoretical “text-context-hypertext” approcah to media content by Ljiljana Gavrilović, Serbian broadsheets and daily papers, such as Blic, Kurir, Politika, Večernje Novosti, from the period 2014-2020, are analyzed. The preliminary results show that the news that concurs with the 2014-15 measles epidemic differs greatly from the news during the 2017-18 epidemic. During the first period, the papers carried medical experts’ advice on the benefits and importance of the MMR vaccine, criticizing (irrational and emotional) parents (mostly mothers) who do not vaccinate their children, in parallel with parental lay evidence on its harmfulness. From approximately 2017 anti-vaccination attitudes disappeared from the newspapers, even from the yellow press. This is concomitant with the new Law on the Protection of the Population against Communicable Diseases (2016), which penalizes anti-vaccination lobbying. In other words, instead of gaining public trust in the health sector and the state by presenting facts, offering dialogue with opponents and systematic education, the state leaders discredited and excluded opposing opinions as “uncivilized”, “irrational” and part of “anti-vaccination lobbying”. Studies explained that citizens of post-socialist countries trust more individuals (friends and family) and distrust the state authorities (as enemies). By introducing compulsory penalties for non-vaccination, the state only deepened this historical and cultural distrust between the state and its citizen. To conclude, insults to parents of non-immunized children, threats of penalties and actual penalties, and the exaggeration of the outcomes of the 2014-15 measles epidemic did not lead to mass immunization. On the contrary, all this acted only counterproductively, as the latest epidemic broke out precisely among non-vaccinated and semi-vaccinated populations. Therefore, it is suggested in the paper that this vaccine should be optional, parallel with the introduction of organized promotion of MMR vaccination, its benefits and side-effects, detailed information on vaccine content, greater freedom of media content on the MMR vaccine, and open public dialogue of parents with medical experts.

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Published
2020-12-15