Last month, when children all over Europe started going back to school after the holidays, Italy was caught in a debate over vaccines that stirred a lot of unrest throughout the country. On September 20th, the government decided to abolish the requirement that children have to be vaccinated before they start school, only to reverse the decision later that month. The currently ruling anti-establishment 5-Star Movement has been spreading misinformation about vaccines. For instance, the co-founder of the party has linked vaccines to autism. This has fuelled the rise of the “No-Vax” movement in Italy.
This comes at a time when the number of cases of measles is rapidly increasing in the country. While in the U.S., the measles vaccine has helped eliminate the disease, the number of documented cases in Italy rose from 843 in 2016 to 5,006 in 2017. The Italian vaccination rate was higher than 90% in 2003, but this percentage has dropped significantly over the course of the past years. The fact that the disease had become so rare might paradoxically have contributed to the surge in disbelief in the effectiveness of the vaccine: was the disease even real? Two factors strongly contributed to this distrust. First, the free flow of information in the digital age and second, lack of trust in experts. Having access to all kinds of information online leads people to look for information about their health on the internet, making them more anxious about their wellbeing. Online search results present a wide range of symptoms, causing people to confuse their symptoms with serious conditions. This replacing of doctors with Google is called cyberchondria. Furthermore, as the Edelman Trust Barometer 2018 notes, trust in experts reached an all-time low in 2017, only to show some renewed confidence in 2018. Especially in times of low trust in experts and declining authority of scientists in combination with increasing rejection of the pharmaceutical interests behind vaccines, the vaccine debate could be a powerful tool in the hands of an anti-establishment party like the 5-Star Movement.
The risks of anti-vaccination movements reach beyond Italy. The European Commission is concerned about outbreaks of measles throughout the continent, as for the second year in a row, thousands of children and adults are falling ill with the disease. Europe could be measles-free with the right use of vaccinations. Not only the anti-vaccine movements in multiple countries are to blame for this, the underfunded public health infrastructure is as well, which is the result of years of austerity.
In any case, lower vaccination rates pose risks to public health, the consequences of which are already visible throughout Europe.
RISKS MARKED ON THE RISK RADAR AS NUMBER 3: spread of infectious disease