Kiev (AFP) - Around 200 anti-vaccine protesters rallied in central Kiev Thursday after authorities threatened to ban unvaccinated children from schools in Ukraine, which has been hit by a deadly measles outbreak.
Ukraine has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe and has recorded more than 57,000 measles cases since the start of the year, including 18 deaths.
This is a record number of cases since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
"I came here with my child to protect her right for education without vaccination, without injecting poison into her blood," said 29-year-old Iryna Lazutkina, who was at the protest with her young daughter.
"Vaccination is a ticking time bomb," she said, suggesting that it could lead to allergies, autoimmune diseases and even cancer -- claims which are not backed up by medical research.
Authorities blame distrust of vaccines among a section of the population, as well as an earlier shortage of medical supplies, for the current outbreak.
In mid-August, the government threatened to ban unvaccinated children from schools.
This year the health ministry organised mass vaccinations in schools in areas most affected by the crisis.
Acting health minister Ulyana Suprun last week warned of the likelihood of diphtheria and tetanus outbreaks because of low vaccination rates.
But the protesters, many of them young parents with children, insisted they had the right to refuse vaccinations.
"I am for free choice and against discrimination," said Alla Fedorchuk, a 25-year-old who travelled to the capital from the western city of Lutsk.
Her three-year-old son has not been vaccinated. Fedorchuk said a relative suffered side effects after vaccination.
Some protesters carried banners that read "Forced medical intervention is a crime."
Kateryna Bulavinova, a consultant with the UN children's agency UNICEF, said local doctors' lack of knowledge about vaccines was a reason why many missed out on them.
Bulavinova said that doctors and nurses must explain to patients in detail how the vaccine works and what kind of reactions are normal.
"When there is this understanding, the fear goes away," she said.
According to the UNICEF survey, Ukrainians were most likely to be put off vaccines because of fears of side effects or a distrust of the manufacturers.
There is growing concern over global public resistance to vaccinations.
Measles cases nearly tripled globally during the first seven months of the year compared to the same period in 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) said this month.
Measles, which is highly contagious, can be entirely prevented through a two-dose vaccine, but the WHO has in recent months sounded the alarm over vaccination rates.
The airborne infection causing fever, coughing and rashes can be deadly in rare cases and had been officially eliminated in many countries with advanced healthcare systems.