Parents, health professionals and teachers in Italy have come together to protest against government plans to remove a law requiring children to be vaccinated. The law, introduced last year, effectively makes vaccination mandatory by obliging parents to present proof of vaccination to schools and creches.
The new Italian government, elected in the spring of 2018, has announced that it will delete the law, allowing parents to verbally state that their children were protected. School headteachers are opposed to the move, particularly as Italy recorded more than 5,000 measles cases last year.
A petition launched by parents calls on the government to maintain the previous government’s legislation. The campaign is spearheaded by mothers of children with health conditions which leave them vulnerable to infections. Many must take medicines to suppress their immune systems after organ transplantation. Therefore they themselves cannot be vaccinated. So, they rely on others in the community to be protected by vaccination to reduce the risk to their children.
‘Chicken pox or measles, in our children, would have devastating effects,’ the petition states, noting that these infections can be ‘easily avoided’ through vaccination.
Alice Pignatti, a parent, vaccine advocate and volunteer member of the Vaccines Today Editorial Board, expressed concern about the government’s vaccination policy but said the public response to the petition has been encouraging.
‘We decided to support this petition as citizens and as association because these parents actually represent the immune-depressed children in Italy whose lives will be at risk if they catch measles,’ Ms Pignatti said.
‘The petition was signed by over 250,000 people in its first week and the number is still rising. This is a clear sign of Italian parents’ concern about this government and about a minister who talks about ‘flexible obligation’ – a total nonsense which only gives a wink, in our opinion, to the novax world.’
The government has offered mixed messages on vaccination, with Interior Minister Matteo Salvini referring to compulsory immunisation as ‘dangerous’ while Health Minister Giulia Grillo insisted that she would ensure her own children were vaccinated.
Public health advocates worry that these mixed messages will prompt confusion among the public, creating the false impression that experts are divided over the importance of immunisation.
‘Weakening a law that works, that Italians are respecting and is doing some good to children and to the health system is a self-destructive strategy,’ Roberto Burioni, a virologist at San Raffaele University in Milan, told the New York Times.
The European Commissioner for Health, Vytenis Andriukaitis, has also expressed dismay at how some leading Italian politicians are handling the measles crisis.
You know what I think is dangerous?
One example is giving medical advice without having medical qualifications.
Even more so, when the worst outcome is children dying because they are not getting life-saving #vaccines.
— Vytenis Andriukaitis (@V_Andriukaitis) June 27, 2018
Italy has been fighting measles outbreaks for several years. Vaccine uptake should be 95% (with two doses of measles-containing vaccine) to prevent measles epidemics. In Italy, measles vaccination rates are only around 91%, with some regions recording even lower uptake. This leaves pockets of the population susceptible to major outbreaks.
Previous governments approved a world-leading life-course immunisation schedule, supported by scientific societies and health professionals, and sought to link public school attendance with proof of vaccination.