Italy’s ‘divine intervention’ on vaccines raises concern about role of state

Protecting children from diseases normally reserved for other people is a top priority for the Italian government, but recent outbreaks of measles and a serious congenital defect have given the authorities pause

Health authorities in the Italian region of Vicenza have raised concerns about the negative effects of a national campaign aimed at raising awareness about the immunisation of children.

They have expressed unease at the size of the official role the government should be playing in protecting children from diseases normally reserved for other people.

But the director general of Health for Vicenza (a regional administration in north-eastern Italy), Dr Giancarlo Gelber, says it was not possible to limit the government’s role to that of an insurer, rather than the provider of general health.

It was a prescription for a “divine intervention” that parents were being urged to follow, he said.

The communiques of two alarming developments have been triggered by the spread of measles and serious congenital defects in Italian children.

Measles cases soared to a weekly record in Italy last year – an 85% increase on 2016 levels – while the number of congenital malformations has doubled in the last decade.

The reason for the higher risks in Vicenza is in fact the same as in most of Italy. Parents are either not confident enough in the protection of vaccinations or they believe their children will be ill without them.

Health officials are worried about the likelihood of a repeat of the outbreaks which triggered the controversial vaccination campaign in 1977. As with those that have hit rural Italian health systems since 2010, they suggest a large number of unvaccinated children and their families in the area in question are to blame.

It was not possible to reduce the state’s role

Asked whether the Italian government had a role to play, but only to ensure that parents took good care of their children and, in the event of a communicable disease outbreak, to provide medical support to them when they were unable to access their children’s education, Dr Gelber replied: “I don’t believe so.”

Many parents are concerned about other issues such as their children’s attitude to their classmates’ eating habits, their exposure to noise and environmental pollution, and behavioural problems such as hyperactivity.

But, said Dr Gelber, the hospitals and universities in Vicenza were preparing for a higher number of measles cases this year.

Other regions were being encouraged to follow their example, he said.

The possibility of a wave of measles is being viewed with particular suspicion among the national health authorities. They say there was no scientific basis for the claim of health officials in the eastern Italian region of Emilia Romagna that previous vaccinations for measles were not completed in time.

The overall message to health authorities in Vicenza, said Dr Gelber, was that it was impossible to reduce the state’s role to that of an insurer.

“From this point of view it was not possible to reduce the state’s role”, he said.

Health authorities and the environment ministry must act together to make vaccination a serious matter, he said.

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