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HEALTH

Reader question: Are there limits on bringing medicines into Italy?

Over-the-counter painkillers can be surprisingly expensive in Italy, and some brands of medicine that visitors use back home aren't available in Italian pharmacies. So what are the rules on bringing medicines in from outside the country?

What medicines can you bring to Italy from abroad?
What medicines can you bring to Italy from abroad? Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP

Question: I’m moving to Italy for a few months and planning on bringing some painkillers with me, as I’ve heard they cost a lot more over there. Does Italy have rules on how much I can bring?

Basic pharmaceuticals can cost considerably more in Italy than in countries like the US or the UK.

For example, a box of 20 paracetamol will set you back around five euros on average in Italy, while a pack of 16 pills of the same painkiller in the UK costs 49 pence, or 57 centesimi. In Australia, a box of 20 paracetamol caplets will set you back around $3.49 (€2.30) and in the US there are much bigger savings to be made on larger-size packs, which are not available in Italy.

It’s not just headache pills: cold and flu tablets, lozenges and antihistamines are all often significantly more expensive in Italy than in many other countries.

With these kind of price differences, it’s understandable that visitors would want to save money by bringing their own medication over from abroad.

So what are the rules on bringing pharmaceuticals into Italy – and why are they so pricey in the first place?

Why are pharmaceuticals so expensive in Italy?

In essence, Italy has a powerful pharmacists lobby that raises strong objections at the slightest sign of market liberalisation.

Italy has strict rules in place governing the number of pharmacies that can operate in a given area based on the number of people living there, as well as around transfer of ownership, with many pharmacies simply being passed down to the next generation. While the system may not exactly be a monopoly, in the past it’s certainly seemed not far off one.

The passage of the Bersani law in 2007 relaxed the rules slightly, allowing basic over-the-counter drugs like painkillers to be sold outside of pharmacies for the first time; and a 2012 decree increased the number of drugs that could be sold in those venues without a prescription.

But that doesn’t mean you can just waltz into a supermarket, swipe a couple of packets of ibuprofen off the shelves next to the washing up liquid and the toothpaste and walk out with them for less than the price of a cappuccino, like in the UK.

Parafarmacie or ‘parapharmacies’, drug stores that were introduced in the wake of the Bersani law, are allowed to sell a limited range of over-the-counter drugs along with health and beauty products – but still require a pharmacist to administer the transaction.

Basic pharmaceuticals are often considerably more expensive in Italy than in other countries.

Basic pharmaceuticals are often considerably more expensive in Italy than in other countries. Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP

The same rule applies in supermarkets, where medicines must have their own dedicated counter that is manned at all times by at least one qualified pharmacist.

This means it’s not unheard of to end up spending 50 centesimi per pill for a basic headache drug like paracetamol, and sometimes even more. According to a 2016 survey, buying drugs at the supermarket as opposed to other venues offered savings of around 10 percent – not exactly life-changing.

READ ALSO: How to get a coronavirus test in Italy

The rules on bringing medicines into Italy from abroad

For controlled substances – that includes drugs like Adderall and Valium, which are considered narcotics in the EU – Italy’s rules are fairly strict.

You’ll need a prescription along with an official certificate stating the country and place of issue, the issuing authority, the prescribing physician and patient, and the dosage.

With these types of drugs, you’re also only allowed a 30 day supply – so if you’re in the country for longer than this, you’ll want to bring extra prescriptions from your doctor that will allow you to top up your medication in Italy for the length of your stay.

As for over-the-counter pharmaceuticals and non-narcotic prescription medicines, Italy doesn’t appear to have any clear published rules on importation for personal use. 

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Other EU countries such as Sweden and Finland allow travellers coming from outside the Schengen area to bring a three-month supply of these kind of pharmaceuticals, so it’s safe to assume that similar limits will apply in Italy.

The Local has sought confirmation from the Italian authorities as to the legal limit of over-the-counter medication that can be brought over from abroad.

If you do find yourself needing to buy basic painkillers and other drugs at an Italian pharmacy or parafarmacia, remember to ask for the generico (generic) version. 

You’ll usually be automatically handed a branded version as it increases the pharmacy’s mark up, so asking for the generic version could save you a good few euros.

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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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