While cases of measles have been increasing in Georgia, neighboring Azerbaijan is practically measles-free. Doctors argue that this is due to the country’s comprehensive vaccination policy; according to official statistics, up to 97 percent of all children have been vaccinated against measles.
At first glance, the number of unvaccinated children may seem insignificant – but that is not the case. Meydan TV reports on doctors’ concerns and the reasons why an increasing number of people choose not to get themselves or their children vaccinated.
“Better than in Europe”
Azerbaijan is among the top ten countries in Europe which have managed to eradicate measles, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported in 2015. According to the Deputy Director-General of Azerbaijan’s Center of Hygiene and Epidemiology, Afag Aliyeva, the country has erased a number of additional diseases, including rubella, diphtheria, and polio.
“In that respect, things in our country are better than in many European countries”, Aliyeva says. She believes that these results are only possible due to the timely and consistent vaccination of children.
Official statistics published by the Ministry of Health show 95 to 97 percent of all children are vaccinated according to a clearly defined schedule. Among the children left unvaccinated are those with medical exemptions preventing them from receiving a vaccine as well as children whose parents oppose vaccinations.
Even though Azerbaijan does not have an apparent anti-vaccination movement, during the last few years an increasing number of parents have started to doubt the quality of vaccines available in hospitals.
An unaddressed issue
One of them is Ayten Farhadova, mother of a ten-year-old boy. Her son got several vaccinations after he was born.
“After the DTP vaccination [a combination against three infectious diseases], my son got a fever, which really scared me”, she recounts.
Even before this incident Ayten had heard about complications caused by vaccinations. She tried to find out more about the vaccines used at her local clinic, hoping that the doctors would dispel her worries. When they impatiently dismissed her questions, Ayten signed a vaccination refusal form and never returned.
“I am not against vaccinations in general. But I do not trust our healthcare system. I want to know where a vaccine was manufactured, and what it is made from. It turns out that this topic does not get discussed in our country, everyone is silent about it. And because of that I no longer want to vaccinate”, she says.
Lack of responsibility
Dilgam Shabanli, a pediatrician, believes that acknowledging parents’ questions and worries is fundamental to prevent them from rejecting vaccinations.
He argues that all the vaccines that Azerbaijan imports meet WHO standards, which is why the fear of low-quality products is unfounded.
“Having a fever is a normal reaction to a vaccination and nothing to be afraid of. It’s actually better than having no reaction whatsoever – this might mean that your immune system is weak”, he explains.
While serious complications can occasionally occur after vaccinations, Shabanli believes that this is not related to the quality of the vaccine used. He sees it as the doctor’s responsibility to examine patients well enough to determine whether they are healthy and fit to receive a vaccination or not.
Zaur Gurbanli, father of a one-year-old, heard rumors about vaccinations in state clinics being harmful. “Vaccinations in private clinics are much more expensive though, they cost a fortune”, he says.
Unlike Ayten, he managed to obtain all the information he was looking for from his local clinic.
“I was told that people were particularly worried about vaccines produced in India. They can cause increased body temperature, but that’s normal. The clinic also offered vaccines from Belgium and Canada, and we were able to choose which ones we would like to get”, he explains.
The director of the Azerbaijan Scientific Research Institute of Pediatrics, Nasib Guliyev, supports the idea that parents who choose not to vaccinate their children do so because of doubts about the quality of the product used.
Pediatrician Dilgam Shabanli raised concerns about the number of unvaccinated children in Azerbaijan. He argues that three to five percent may seem like a low number but still leaves many children at risk, particularly considering the fact cases of measles in neighboring Georgia have been increasing. During the last year, additional vaccinations in districts along the Georgian border were offered, covering up to 98 percent of the local population.
“The state has to take care of its citizen’s health. In this case, it should educate people and make sure that all the questions they have are answered.”