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Vaccine row erupts in Italy as populist govt seeks to ease rules

A row is erupting over vaccines in Italy as the country's new populist government fights to roll back a law that bans children from attending school if they haven't received a series of jabs.

Vaccine row erupts in Italy as populist govt seeks to ease rules
Photos: AFP

The law, adopted last year by the centre-left government that was booted out of power in March, made it compulsory for children in pre-school education to be vaccinated against 10 diseases, including measles, tetanus and poliomyelitis.

Parents who have not vaccinated their children by the time they reach school age (six years old in Italy) face a fine of up to 500 euros.

The new administration — formed of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the nationalist League — is leading the charge against the law.

Last week, the upper house Senate approved an amendment proposed by Five Star and the League pushing back enforcement of compulsory vaccination for pre-schoolers to the 2019-20 school year, pending a complete revision of the law after the summer recess.

New health minister Giulia Grillo, from Five Star, has drafted a new bill introducing what she calls a “flexible obligation”, giving priority to education on the benefits of vaccines, encourages use of compulsory vaccination only over short periods and instances when the coverage rate is too low.

Grillo, a doctor, claims there will be guarantees that children who haven't been immunised could be enrolled in classes where the WHO recommended coverage is assured.

However she also caused outrage when, in an interview with major daily Corriere Della Sera on Wednesday, she said that it wasn't realistic to “make people believe that no one will die” of measles.

Outbreak 

Parents currently have to present pre-school institutions with booklets that list the vaccines, updated by the doctors who administer them.

For the 2019-20 school year plans were in place for educators to get vaccine information on each child directly from local health authorities, a measure designed to bypass the possibility of anti-vax parents falsifying documentation.

That measure was adopted in order to fight back against a drop in the number of people being vaccinated that had taken coverage below the 95 percent limit recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

That coverage ratio is the minimum required to create the communal immunity that staves off diseases and protects people with compromised immune systems who can't be vaccinated.

Coverage rates increased in Italy following the enaction of the previous government's law, but many regions remain well below the WHO threshold for a number of illnesses.

Data from Italy's National Health Institute released in July showed that four people — including a 10-month-old baby — had died from measles between January and May, the same number that died in the whole of 2017. In total over 1,700 people had contracted the disease, while last year 5,400 cases were recorded.

Fightback 

The WHO says that Italy accounted for nearly a quarter of the 21,315 measles cases recorded across Europe last year, when cases of the disease soared across the continent.

The number of cases in Italy alone last year was close to the entire European total for 2016, a record low of 5,273, according to the WHO.

While both Five Star head Luigi Di Maio and League leader Matteo Salvini say they are in favour of vaccines and have vaccinated their own children, they consider the current law “coercive” and criticise it for blocking children's access to education.

Some people are fighting back against the government, with a petition created by concerned parents against the amendment attracting around 100,000 signatures in just a few days.

Several regional presidents have announced that they intend to enforce the vaccine obligation even if it is withdrawn, while the national association of headteachers has also said that the current law would remain in force and that parents would have to present a medical certificate proving their children have been vaccinated.


 

M5S

‘From today, the state is us’: Five Star leader

Italy's new prime minister Giuseppe Conte mostly kept quiet on his full first day in office Saturday, while his two powerful deputies took centre stage in setting the tone of the populist government's policy.

'From today, the state is us': Five Star leader
Italy’s deputy PM Luigi Di Maio gestures a speech during a meeting with M5S supporters to celebrate Italy's new government in Rome on June 2. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP
Conte, a political novice, was finally sworn in on Friday as the head of a government of ministers from the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far-right League, ending months of uncertainty since elections in March.
   
But Conte was a compromise candidate between Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio and the League's Matteo Salvini — both of whom are now his deputy prime ministers — and he will have to walk a delicate line to push through the 
anti-austerity and pro-security promises their populist parties campaigned on.
   
The 53-year-old academic also inherited a daunting list of issues from his predecessor Paolo Gentiloni, including the financial travails of companies such as Ilva and Alitalia, a Group of Seven summit in Canada and a key EU 
summit at the end of the month, as well as the thorny question of immigration.
   
Immigration is the bugbear of Conte's interior minister, Salvini, the 45-year-old leader of the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam League.   
 
Salvini announced on Friday that he would visit Sicily to see the situation for himself at one of the main landing points for refugees fleeing war, persecution and famine across North Africa and the Middle East.
   
“The good times for illegals is over — get ready to pack your bags,” Salvini said at a rally in Italy's north on Saturday, adding however that he wants to economically assist migrants' countries of origin.
   
His comments come after more than 150 migrants, including nine children, disembarked from a rescue ship late Friday in Sicily.
 
'From today, the state is us'
 
Conte attended a military parade alongside President Sergio Mattarella on Saturday, marking Republic Day for the foundation of the Italian Republic in 1946.
   
However the new prime minister has issued few public statements since being appointed.
 
On Saturday he did post on Facebook that he had spoken with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron and would meet the two leaders at the G7 summit, where he will be a “spokesman for the interests of Italian citizens”.
   
Conte has also opted to keep the country's intelligence services under his personal control. 
   
Deputy premier Di Maio, who is serving as economic development minister, also took to Facebook, calling for “entrepreneurs to be left alone”.
   
“Employers and employees in Italy must not be enemies,” he said, promising “I will not disappoint you”.
   
On Saturday evening Five Star held a rally in the centre of Rome with thousands of supporters and all its ministers to celebrate “the government of change”.
   
Di Maio told the crowd that “from today, the state is us”.
   
Five Star's founder, former comic Beppe Grillo, rang a bell in front of the crowd, saying the sound “marks the fracture between a world that is going away and a new one that is arriving”.
   
EU and the eurosceptics
 
The world will be carefully watching power relations between Conte and his two influential deputies — particularly the European Union, given the eurosceptic government is the first populist coalition in a founding EU member.
   
EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker called on Saturday for Conte's new government to be treated with respect, having earlier sparked controversy by telling Italians to work harder and stop blaming the EU for the country's problems. 
   
“We should show respect towards Italy,” Juncker said in an interview with the German press group Funke Mediengruppe.
   
Juncker said Italy must not suffer the same fate as thrice-bailed out Greece whose dignity was “trodden under foot” by its creditors when left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras took office in 2015.
   
“That must not happen again in the present case with Italy,” Juncker said. “Italians have a clear understanding of what is good for their country. They will sort it out.”