Italian Government Feeds Anti-Science Conspiracies By Reversing Life-Saving Vaccine Law

'Where there is risk, there must be choice.' OK, but your children will die. Renato Murolo 68/Shutterstock

Italy is set to reverse a law from only last year designed to encourage life-saving vaccinations in children, with a vote in Italy's upper house passing by 148 votes to 110 last week. The move has shocked the scientific and medical community – particularly as the country is currently suffering one of the highest rates of measles in Europe.

Italy's culture of rejecting the science on vaccines goes all the way back to the original Andrew Wakefield scam, but was firmly entrenched into the national consciousness when a Rimini court ruled in 2012 that a child's autism had been caused by an MMR vaccine. Although the case was overturned in 2015, anti-vax conspiracies had taken hold, and a shocking 15 percent of Italians are now either skeptical or hesitant towards vaccines, Time reports.

Italy's new government – the so-called "Government of Change" – is led by a coalition between two parties: the Five Star Movement, or M5S, and the far-right League – and both have a history of exploiting this distrust of vaccines for political gain. As far back as 2015, M5S even proposed a law to ban them, citing the supposed "link between vaccinations and specific illnesses such as leukaemia, poisoning, inflammation, immunodepression, inheritable genetic mutations, cancer, autism and allergies," reports The Guardian. Unsurprisingly, after several years of falling immunization rates, the number of measles cases has shot up – from 251 in 2015, to 844 in 2016, and 4,991 in 2017, according to the LA Times.

Reported measles cases by month of rash onset, Italy, January 2013−August 2017 (n=9,559). Filia, Bella, Del Manso, Baggieri, Magurano, Rota MC, Euro Surveill. 2017

This was the background for last year's radical new law that made vaccinations against 12 diseases mandatory – ruling that children without the vaccines would not be allowed to enroll in state-run schools. At the time, Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin called the fall in vaccines across the country "an emergency generated by fake news".

But since entering office, the new government has rolled back this initiative, first weakening the requirement to prove vaccination, and now suspending the law entirely for a year. In a radio interview in June, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini vowed to "keep going" with the agenda, claiming that "10 mandatory vaccinations are useless, and in many cases dangerous, if not harmful."

"Italy's measles vaccine coverage was par with Namibia, lower than Ghana," Roberto Burioni, a professor of microbiology and virology at San Raffaele University in Milan, told CNN. "But the law was working, the coverage was improving. We should strengthen it, not weaken it. Now, children who are not vaccinated will endanger other children at school who are too small for vaccines or cannot be vaccinated because they suffer from immunosuppressive diseases."

Current Health Minister Giulia Grillo, who studied medicine at university, said in an interview that while she supports vaccinations, she does not believe access to school should be used as a coercion tool. She pointed out that vaccination levels are currently higher than previous years – though did not, perhaps unsurprisingly, credit this success to the exact law her party is trying to revoke.

The amendment still needs to be passed by Italy's lower house before it can become law, but it has already met political and scientific backlash.

"[The vote is] a step backwards," Antonio Saitta, health director for the Piedmont region, told the Financial Times. "Vaccines are not a bureaucratic imposition but the best method of prevention. They allow us to reduce serious and lethal diseases, and even eliminate them."

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