Italy’s health minister, whose populist party flirts with anti-vaxx junk science, sacked every member of the country’s top panel of health advisers Monday, saying she wanted to give “space to the new.”
Health Minister Giulia Grillo, a member of the vaccine-skeptic Five Star Movement, fired all 30 members of the Higher Health Council, the committee of medical experts who advise the government on health policy.
In a Facebook post announcing the move, she said: “We are the #governmentofchange and, as I have already done with the appointments of the various organs and committees of the ministry, I have chosen to open the door to other deserving personalities.”
The sacked president of the council, Roberta Siliquini, said the move raised concerns about the expertise of members who would replace them, and whether the appointments would be politically motivated.
“We are worried about why they have decided to remove people who were selected due to their experience and competencies at the highest level,” Siliquini, who leads the school of hygiene and preventive medicine at the University of Turin, told the Guardian.
“We are also worried about who will make up the next council and, especially, if the nominations are politically motivated.”
Siliquini told Italian media she could see “no scientific reason” to dismiss the board, two years before its term was up. Grillo had neither met with nor sought guidance from the panel in the six months she had held the portfolio, she added.
“It would have been a courtesy to meet us at least once since she took office, six months ago, but we have never seen the minister,” Siliquino said.
The panel will now be replaced by candidates selected by Grillo.
The Five Star Movement, an anti-establishment party that has governed in coalition with the far-right League since June, has alarmed the medical establishment with its statements of support for scientifically debunked positions on health issues.
It has pandered to the growing anti-vaxx movement, fueling public mistrust of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination.
This is particularly dangerous in a country where the uptake of the measles vaccine is well below the World Health Organization’s recommended 95 percent for “herd immunity,” and which has been grappling with a deadly outbreak of the disease.
Last year, Italy accounted for a quarter of all measles cases in Europe.
During campaigning for this year’s election, both Five Star and its eventual coalition partner Lega pledged to scrap a beefed-up law that made it compulsory for children to be vaccinated for 10 diseases, rather than the four previously mandated.
Since coming to power, the government has made several chaotic U-turns to the compulsory vaccines policy, saying that parents could “self-certify” that their children had had the shots, before effectively backpedaling last month.
The Italian medical establishment reacted with outrage when the government passed its first piece of anti-vax legislation in August. Leading virologist Roberto Burioni called the move “an infamous page in the history of the Republic,” accusing the government of jeopardizing “the health of the weakest and most defenseless children” in order “to ingratiate themselves with the most ignorant, selfish… part of the country.”
Five Star was also a vocal advocate of Stamina, a controversial stem-cell therapy that was later debunked as a scam.
Cover image: Five Stars Movement delegation with Giulia Grillo at the end of the Consultations in the Chamber of Deputies of the Appointed Italian Premier for the formation of the new Government, on May 24, 2018 in Rome, Italy. (Simona Granati - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)