One of the first vaccines to be developed in record time and approved with equal speed for use during the new coronavirus pandemic, Vaxzevria, was released by the British-Swedish company AstraZeneca. A medication the majority of citizens had been anxiously waiting for since 2020, as it would provide much-coveted immunity and permit a return to normality, it enjoyed its glory days in the first months of 2021. However, it did not take long for doubts about its efficacy to surface, along with concerns about its safety, since some patients who were administered the vaccine went on to suffer rare types of thrombosis. This led to changes being made to the instructions on how to administer the vaccine to certain age groups.

‘A medication that saved millions of lives’

Ten days ago, in early May, AstraZeneca finally withdrew its vaccine for commercial reasons, given that demand for it had plummeted, both as a result of new and updated Covid-19 vaccines being released and of its bad reputation. “It was inferior to the newer vaccines, and anything new that has come along is greatly improved, in any case”, the pathologist-clinical pharmacologist and lecturer at the University of Athens Medical School, Anastasios Spantideas, explains to TO VIMA.

Despite the official announcements, however, this final act in the vaccine’s career has reignited the conspiracy theories around coronavirus vaccines as a whole, putting all the outrageous things said and written around the world in the first months of the pandemic crisis back into the limelight. The usual suspects within the anti-vax movement were quick to link the withdrawal to hidden side-effects. For their part, however, experts have spoken about unfair and unjust criticism of a vaccine that contributed decisively to the final victory against Covid-19. “AstraZeneca’s vaccine was excellent and met a crucial need. It was one of the first to be administered against the coronavirus, and it is totally unfair to criticize it in this way, given the millions of lives it saved during the pandemic,” says Vana Papaevangelou, Professor of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Athens.

The Legacy of Fear and Doubt

Despite the assurances of the medical community, however, the conspiracy theories cultivated by a small minority of journalists seem to have fallen on receptive ears and to have had an—albeit limited—impact on the vaccination coverage of the population at large. At the same time, the psychological fatigue associated with the pandemic period, coupled with the vaccinations being administered in quick succession during its first few months, have left a legacy of fear and doubt.

According to the social security portal of the Greek state (IDIKA), 4,445,546 Covid-19 vaccinations were delivered in 2022. However, this number fell by almost 94% the following year, with vaccinations reaching only 276,857 in 2023 before falling another 39.5% this year, with just 167,617 administered by early May 2024. It should be recalled that in 2021, the first year in which the vaccinations came into general circulation, no fewer than 17,425,672 shots were administered in Greece, allowing 7,457,885 citizens to return to normality.

Flu Vaccinations Are Also on a Decline

However, it isn’t only the Covid-19 vaccines that Greeks are seemingly turning their backs on. Over the last four years, flu vaccinations have experienced a small but steady decline, too, despite a change in the rules in 2022 allowing the shots to be delivered by pharmacists without the need for a prescription. Specifically, 3,432,700 flu vaccinations were carried out between October 2020 and May 2021; 3,160,700 between October 2021 and May 2022; and 2,977,340 in the same period in 2022–2023. With 2,900,170 vaccinations administered since October 2023, and the vaccination period finishing at the end of May, this marks a decrease of 15.5% over the last four years.

“There is a tendency to be skeptical about and wary of vaccines, though usually in relation to vaccines which are administered to children. For example, we have had a measles outbreak caused by the fall in vaccination coverage. We have also faced skepticism from the community over the flu vaccine, especially after the first year of the pandemic,” notes Dimitrios Paraskevis, professor of Epidemiology & Preventive Medicine at the University of Athens, drawing attention to the significant portion of the Greek population, which has turned against vaccines.

Regarding the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, Papaevangelou confirms the decline in population coverage, noting that the same phenomenon has been recorded in many countries. “There has been a decrease in measles-mumps-rubella vaccination coverage, but less so in Greece than elsewhere. The vaccine in question has long been blamed for its side effects and it frightens parents. Needless to say, there is nothing to fear. However, we are not seeing a reduction across the board for all children’s vaccines. For example, the number of first doses of the pneumococcal, pertussis and tetanus vaccines administered has remained steady,” she notes.

This Is Nothing New

People have always been suspicious of vaccines, Paraskevis explains, and new conspiracies pop up every time a new crisis hits. This was the case during the pandemic, when a minority convinced that something was being hidden from the public or that some sinister aims were being served, started creating scenarios. “This isn’t a recent ’movement’. But while it wasn’t brought into being by the pandemic, it was strengthened by it.” In the same spirit, Spantideas notes that the phenomenon has been observed since the introduction of vaccines, which is to say “since the first smallpox vaccine, which wiped the disease off the face of the earth, and also since the polio vaccine, which has saved millions of children who would otherwise have died or been left paralyzed”.

But why is this the case? Professor Paraskevis attributes the phenomenon to the vaccine being a precautionary measure, which means the person receiving it is not under immediate threat, unlike a patient who is already ill and being administered a drug. “We use vaccines as long as we are healthy. This is not the case with medicines, which we take as a treatment when we are ill, and which are thus absolutely necessary. In other words, vaccines and medications are associated with very different states of mind.” In fact, Spantideas adds, drugs also have side-effects that can cost lives under certain circumstances: “Unfortunately, like all medications, even the most innocent vaccines can have some side-effects. But how many millions of people have died from taking aspirin, a drug we all keep in our homes and use extensively? Yet aspirin has not been phased out, despite there being a risk of someone taking it and suffering a fatal heart attack. In other words, the risk does not negate its curative value or its contribution to society. Unfortunately, people who are contrarian by nature tend to join together into movements that make a lot of noise and ultimately cause a lot of damage.”