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Italy’s vaccine-sceptic M5S sacks entire board of health experts

Italian health minister Giulia Grillo has unexpectedly sacked every member of the Higher Health Council, the committee of medical experts chosen to advise the government on health policy.

Italy’s vaccine-sceptic M5S sacks entire board of health experts
Italian health minister Giulia Grillo, of the Five Star Movement (M5S). Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

Grillo, from the populist Five Star Movement, wrote on Facebook that it was “time to give space to the new” after sacking the 30 board members unexpectedly with a formal letter yesterday.

“We are the #governmentofchange and, as I have already done with the appointments of the various organs and committees of the ministry, I have chosen to open the door to other deserving personalities,” she wrote.

Giulia Grillo's facebook post. Screenshot.

The outgoing president of the board, Roberta Siliquini, and some of the other 29 dismissed members said they were taken by surprise by the move, although they noted that the minister had not once asked them for an opinion, or even arranged a meeting, since she took office six months ago.

“I take note of the minister's decision, she has her prerogative,” Siliquini, who is head of the school of hygiene and preventive medicine at the University of Turin, told Italian media.

“It would have been a courtesy to meet us at least once since she took office, six months ago, but we have never seen the minister,” said Siliquini, who added that she could see “no scientific reason” behind the decision.

“I would like to thank extraordinary colleagues and excellent scientists who for four years have worked hard, with rigor and competence, and free of charge for the country.”

The board members will now be replaced by candidates chosen by Grillo.

READ ALSO: Vaccine row erupts in Italy as populist government seeks to ease rules

The members are nominated every three years and, though a change in government often means some members are replaced, no health minister has ever before dismissed an entire board.

Grillo said in her Facebook post that some of the revoked board members “could be reappointed”, but “not the leaders – who must have the trust of and be in full harmony with the minister in charge.”

The Five Star Movement (M5S) is well known for its low regard for expert opinions, which is particularly worrying for medical professionals as the party has a track record of supporting unfounded claims.

The party was a vocal supporter of Stamina, a controversial stem-cell therapy promoted by a now-disgraced psychologist. It was later proven to be a scam.

M5S has also been heavily criticised for its role in raising doubts over the efficacy of vaccinations. A law proposal put forward by the party in 2014 called for “better information and possible denial of administering vaccinations” and cited the debunked studies.

Italy was one of the countries where discredited claims of a link between the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination and autism had a significant impact on public perceptions of the safety of the jab.

Since taking office, Grillo has caused widespread confusion by making several U-turns on the government’s mandatory child vaccine policy.

READ ALSO: Mandatory vaccines to continue in Italy after measles outbreaks

 

HEALTH

Q&A: What you need to know about Italy’s West Nile virus outbreak

As Italy records a surge in cases of West Nile fever, we look at what the disease is and where in the country it's spreading.

Q&A: What you need to know about Italy's West Nile virus outbreak

Mosquitos are unfortunately one downside of summer in Italy. But as well as being a nuisance, they may also pose a health risk in the country – one of the few in Europe to record cases of West Nile virus (WNV)

READ ALSO: Cases of West Nile fever surge in northern Italy

Last week Italy recorded 50 more cases of the mosquito-borne virus, bringing the total number of infections to 144 according to the latest report from Italy’s Higher Health Institute (ISS).

This marked a 53-percent increase in cases against the previous week, while ten people have died so far.

As the number of infections continues to rise, here are the answers to the most pressing questions about the disease and the outbreak in Italy.

What is it?

The West Nile Virus (WNV) is a single-stranded RNA virus that can cause West Nile fever in humans.

It’s a member of the Flavivirus family together with other endemic viruses such as the Zika and Dengue viruses.

The virus was first identified in 1937 in Uganda’s West Nile district but has since spread to many other parts of the world, to the point that it is now considered indigenous to Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. 

Carried by birds, West Nile virus is transmitted to humans by mosquitoes.

The West Nile virus is primarily transmitted by mosquitoes of the Culex species, which infect humans and other mammals through their bite, according to Italy’s health ministry.

There is no evidence that human-to-human transmission is possible.

Where are cases being reported in Italy?

Infections have been largely concentrated in the north of the country, especially in the Veneto region, where six people have now died of the disease. Other deaths were recorded in Lombardy, Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna.

The city of Padua, which is located in Veneto’s mainland, around 35 kilometres away from the Adriatic coast, is currently regarded as the hotspot of the virus. 

It isn’t yet clear why Veneto has been the worst-hit region so far, but experts fear that its marshy lowlands might be the perfect breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitoes. 

A mosquito of the Culex species viewed under a microscope.

Mosquitoes of the Culex species, a specimen of which is pictured above, are responsible for transmitting the West Nile Virus to humans and other mammals. Photo by Jon CHERRY Getty Images / AFP

How severe is the outbreak in Italy?

West Nile virus is not new to Italy. However, this summer has brought the highest number of cases recorded yet.

National infection levels remain relatively low but the country has by far the largest number of cases in Europe.

According to the most recent report from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), dated August 3rd, 94 out of 120 recorded cases were in Italy.

Greece had 23 reported cases. Romania and Slovakia had two and one respectively. 

Italy is the only European country that has reported fatalities.

What are the symptoms?

According to the Italian Higher Health Institute (ISS), around 80 percent of infected people show no symptoms whatsoever.

In symptomatic cases, however, symptoms generally resemble those of a common flu and include fever, headaches, nausea and diarrhoea. 

The infection is usually only dangerous for people with weakened immune systems such as the elderly, and the most severe symptoms occur in fewer than one percent of infected people.

In healthy people, the virus is unlikely to cause more than a headache or sore throat, and symptoms generally last only a few days.

According to the data currently available, around one in 150 infected people can show symptoms as serious as partial vision loss, convulsions and paralysis. 

In very rare cases (around 0.1 percent, or one in 1000) the disease can cause brain infections (encephalitis or meningitis) which may eventually be fatal.

Brazilian biologists handle mosquito larvae.

There is currently no vaccine against West Nile disease, though several are being tested. Photo by Apu GOMES / AFP

Is there a cure?

There is no vaccine against West Nile fever. “Currently vaccines are being studied, but for the moment prevention consists mainly in reducing exposure to mosquito bites,” the ISS states.

There is also no specific treatment for the disease caused by the virus.

Patients showing the more serious symptoms are usually admitted to hospital and treated with IV fluids and assisted ventilation.

What should you do to protect yourself?

Seeing as there is currently no vaccine against the virus, the best way to protect oneself is by reducing exposure to mosquitoes as much as possible.

Italian health authorities have listed a number of official recommendations to help residents avoid mosquito bites. These include: 

  • Use repellent
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long trousers when being outdoors and especially during ​​mosquitoes’ peak activity times, i.e. sunrise and sunset
  • Use mosquito nets on your windows or sleep in rooms with air-conditioning and keep the windows closed
  • Make sure there are no pools of stagnant water around your house

See more information about West Nile virus in Italy on the health ministry’s website.

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