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In blow against anti-vaccine movements, Italy obligates parents to vaccinate children before starting school

By Eric J. Lyman

ROME, June 22 (Xinhua) -- Italy has recently passed new rules that make childhood vaccinations for a dozen different illnesses compulsory, striking a new blow against the so-called "anti-vaccination movement" that believes the vaccination process could cause autism and other disorders.

Italy has seen a rise in infections from various illnesses that had previously been all but eradicated due to rise in visibility for critics of vaccines. The critics generally oppose the medical procedures both as a way to limit the government's say over the way families raise their children and due to a study that showed negative side effects to some vaccines.

The main study supporting anti-vaccine claims was publicized in a 1998 research paper by researcher Andrew Wakefield that found a link between the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella and the appearance of autism and bowel disease in some subjects. But the findings of the now-debunked paper were never repeated in other studies, and Wakefield lost his medical license as a result.

"I can think of no other case in which a single research paper had been widely discredited and yet still had such big implications on public policy, not just here in Italy but in many other countries," Giuseppe Rossi, a researcher and analyst with the AMS Research Institute in Milan, told Xinhua.

The government's latest steps are seeking to dramatically curtail the impact of the Wakefield report and other anti-vaccine claims: the rules, which go into effect immediately, make vaccinations compulsory for 12 illnesses, including the aforementioned measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, as well as treatments to prevent polio, two kinds of meningitis, and chickenpox.

"The absence of the appropriate measures over the last several years and the spread of anti-scientific theories had resulted in a reduction in protection," Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said at a press briefing announcing the new steps.

During the briefing officials noted that Italy has already seen three times as many cases of measles in less than half of 2017 than it saw in all of last year. The number of Italian children vaccinated for measles by the age of two has dropped to 80 percent from 90 percent previously, well below the World Health Organization's recommendation of a 95-percent measles vaccination rate.

A too-low vaccination rate for measles can lead to school-wide outbreaks. The highly-contagious disease can lead to death if not treated correctly.

Speaking at the same briefing, Beatrice Lorenzin, Italy's minister for health, called the latest steps "a very strong message for the public."

Two leading Italian anti-vaccine groups present only on social media did not respond to Xinhua's request for a response to the remarks from Gentiloni and Lorenzin.

The new rules allow health officials to fine parents who do not have their children fully vaccinated before starting school -- usually at age five or six -- and the children will be barred from enrolling in school until vaccinated. Since some vaccinations require weeks or months to start working, the rules could result in children starting school a year late.

Vaccinations are available in Italy free of charge via public health services.


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