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22 February 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 5:59am

The deadly symptoms of Italy’s anti-vaccination movement

The “no vax” movement has become a fulcrum for Italy’s populist right.

By David Broder

In Trento, a city in north eastern Italy, a truck pulls a billboard displaying a picture of a child in striped pyjamas, a Star of David, and the slogan: “Let’s not repeat the horrors.” It’s part of a publicity campaign that began last Tuesday. But rather than a warning against anti-Semitism or the rise of the far right, the poster is the work of increasingly hysterical anti-vaccination militants comparing MMR jabs to Nazi eugenics.

Italy’s anti-vaccination movement enjoys widespread public sympathy. When former health minister Beatrice Lorenzin introduced a policy in 2017 obligating children to receive ten compulsory vaccinations, political hostility was quick to follow. Surveys demonstrated that between a quarter and a half of Italians opposed the policy, a scepticism amplified by the populist right.

In the campaign for March 2018’s general election, Matteo Salvini’s hard-right Lega and the eclectic Five Star Movement (M5s) both doggedly opposed the vaccination policy, repeating pseudoscientific objections to MMR jabs. And when these two parties formed a new government in June, new interior minister Salvini called the set of ten vaccinations “useless, in some cases dangerous if not harmful,” without specifying the grounds his views were based upon.

The science of the “no vax” movement is risible. But its effects are no joke. In 2017 Italy witnessed a six-fold rise in measles cases; there were 2,718 measles cases reported last year; an outbreak in the southern city of Bari, and 12 deaths from 2017-18. All those who died were unvaccinated.

Hardline campaigns like Siamo – its full name translates as “We are for Freedom of Care” – which produced the Trento billboard, insist ordinary citizens rather than “experts” should be making medical decisions. Giving credence to such views, M5s and the Lega have argued that children should be allowed to attend school even if their parents choose to leave them unvaccinated.

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For virologist Roberto Burioni, “being vaccinated isn’t an act of self-protection, but an expression of one’s responsibility to society.” A stout defender of expertise and the role of evidence-based policy, the immunologist insists that “science can’t be democratic:” when schoolkids risk life-threatening diseases because of the irresponsibility of their parents, the state should insist on doctors’ advice.

Burioni’s books have become bestsellers in Italy’s febrile political climate. Last month he launched a “pact for science”, signed by political figures from former Democratic premier Matteo Renzi to M5s founder Beppe Grillo. One wouldn’t expect a doctor to become a household name for stating views that seem common sense, yet such is the reality in Italy today.

Grillo’s decision to sign Burioni’s pact enraged the M5s’s online fanbase, who branded him a “traitor.” The movement’s devout supporters lambast Burioni as an example of elites’ contempt for ordinary citizens. Their condemnation is encapsulated in the immunologist’s own slogan “science can’t be democratic,” insisting that only “those who have studied these matters” should speak on issues of life and death.

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For M5s this is symptomatic of the political centre’s bid to characterise Italians as “functional illiterates,” unable to take informed decisions for themselves. The M5s’s vision of direct democracy prides itself on the idea that “anyone’s say is worth as much as any other’s.” Its anti-elitist rhetoric also exploits the perceived arrogance of figures like former prime minister Matteo Renzi and his media outriders, who routinely deride M5s voters as ill-informed, lazy, and interested only in living off benefits.

M5s leader Luigi di Maio has long indulged anti-vaxxers’ assertion that no one should be telling them what to do. In the run-up to the March 2018 election he argued that only four of the ten vaccinations stipulated by then-health minister Beatrice Lorenzin should be compulsory, admitting that this could be “reviewed if there are epidemics” (even if this would seem to defeat the point of vaccinations).

When Di Maio’s party and Lega entered government in June, new M5s health minister Giulia Grillo undercut her predecessor’s policy by authorising parents to “self-certify” when their children had been vaccinated, rather than providing ratified medical proof.

The M5s policy has since endured several U-turns. In August the government introduced a curiously termed “flexible obligation” for nursery and school children to have the ten vaccinations. The name for the policy was an oxymoron, but it effectively meant that parents would be given more time to comply, and that the policy would be subject to regular reviews.  Yet by November, a measles emergency forced the health ministry to roll out imminent plans to vaccinate 800,000 children and elderly Italians.

This was only the beginning of the health minister’s clashes with the scientific community. In December Giulia Grillo sacked the government’s entire health advice panel. Last week it emerged that her office spends €35,000 a year on a “mental coach” who specialises in “neurolinguistics programming.” Such pseudoscience typifies the M5s’s political hothousing.

Yet there are indications that Burioni’s pro-science campaign is working. A survey for La Repubblica found that between 2015 and 2017 the number of Italians who supported the ten compulsory jabs had doubled from 23 per cent to 47 per cent.

For now, the situation in Italy still remains frenzied. The theories that anti-vax campaigners militantly promoted over the last decade had a powerful effect; by 2017 Italy’s vaccination rate had fallen to 91 per cent, far short of the 95 per cent cover that the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control prescribes for a measles-free population. Last Tuesday a panel of 82 scientists in Milan issued an open letter to MPs which called for “rigorous checks” to ensure children were vaccinated.

As they put it, “science can make mistakes, but it is the control mechanisms of the scientific community that provide a powerful instrument for scrutiny.” If science should, indeed, be subject to democratic scrutiny, it is hard to credit claims that parents should be allowed to impose irresponsible choices on their children, let alone others.

Yet in a landscape where expertise has fallen into disrepute and parties insist each citizen should decide for themselves, the anti-vaccination pandemic maintains its grip on Italy’s politics.

David Broder is Europe editor of Jacobin magazine