Doctors in Italy reacted with outrage Monday after the country’s new populist government approved its first piece of anti-vax legislation late last week.
In a Senate vote, lawmakers from the governing 5 Star Movement and Lega voted to postpone the introduction of a law, passed by the previous government, that required children to be vaccinated for 10 diseases, including measles, in order to enroll in a creche or kindergarten.
That law had been created in response to soaring rates of measles in Italy that has seen the number of cases leap from about 870 in 2016 to more than 5,000 last year, with four fatalities. Italy accounted for more than a quarter of all measles cases in the European Union in the year to June.
But despite the deadly outbreak, the coalition government that came into power in June has been pandering to Italy’s powerful anti-vaxxer movement, with Lega leader and deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini calling the requirement for 10 vaccines “useless and sometimes dangerous.” Friday’s vote to push back the law by a year is the first concrete step in meeting the coalition’s pledge to roll back laws on mandatory vaccinations, and replacing them with laws striking a “balance between the right to education and the right to health.”
The repeal – which still needs to be approved by Italy’s lower house – has drawn a furious response from the medical establishment, as well as regional governors, who say any move to allow unvaccinated children to attend school will jeopardize public health. Nine of Italy’s regional administrations that oppose the move say they will appeal to the country’s Constitutional Court, or introduce their own laws making vaccines compulsory.
“Shame,” said Roberto Burioni, professor of microbiology and virology at Milan’s Vita-Salute University San Raffaele, in a Facebook post attacking the vote, which he called “an infamous page in the history of the Republic.”
He said that by supporting the repeal, Italy’s senators had jeopardized “the health of the weakest and most defenseless children” in order “to ingratiate themselves with the most ignorant, selfish… part of the country.”
Other medical groups and regional lawmakers joined the chorus of condemnation.
“Halting compulsory vaccinations to surrender to the no-vaccination lobby sends us right back to the Middle Ages,” said Stefano Bonaccini, the governor of Emilia Romagna.
Antonio Saitta, health director for the Piedmont region and health coordinator for the federation of regions, said the repeal was a “step backwards.”
“Vaccines are not a bureaucratic imposition but the best method of prevention,” he said.
In 2016, Italy’s rate of measles vaccine coverage was estimated at 83 percent — well below the World Health Organization’s recommended 95 percent for “herd immunity.”
There were also signs of public disgust over the vote. A Facebook picture went viral of a note posted in the window of Cremeria Spinola, a gelateria in the northern town of Chiavari, banning anti-vaxxers from the store. “You are a danger to the community in which you live,” it read. “I do not want your homicidal laws in my country and I can do without your money.”
There were also signs that some within the coalition are uncomfortable with the government’s anti-vax direction. While Luigi Di Maio, the head of 5 Star, has advocated that Italian immunization law should revert to its previous status – which mandated vaccinations for just four diseases, with measles added in light of the recent outbreak – members of his own party have spoken out in favor of vaccines.
Giorgio Trizzino, a lawmaker for 5 Star who was previously director at a children’s hospital, posted his concerns on Facebook.
“I have worked in a children’s hospital for 40 years and have seen children die of measles and meningitis, but never after vaccinations,” he wrote.
Cover image: A banner is shown during a rally against the obligation to vaccinate children. Participants complaint about the law for which vaccination is compulsory to enrollment children at school. (Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images)