After months of heated debate, a law in Italy has finally entered into force, mandating that children must be vaccinated to be accepted into school. Children have been reportedly told to not turn up to school unless they can prove they have been vaccinated.

Image in public domain.

Italy’s populist government has strongly crusaded against vaccines. Italy’s Five Star movement and its coalition partner, the far-right League, both voiced their opposition to compulsory vaccinations. This campaign got very heated (and dirty) at points, with advertising campaigns using Jewish imagery to liken vaccination to Nazi campaigns.

But although the idea of rejecting a proven scientific method of eliminating a disease is laughable, its effects are anything but. Italy accounted for 34% of all measles cases reported by countries in the European Economic Area, and outbreaks killed 12 people in 2017-2018 — all of whom were unvaccinated.

Doctors have expressed serious concerns that this is just the start of a massive problem, as Italy’s vaccination rate has plummeted to below 80%, compared to the World Health Organisation’s 95% target —  the point at which “herd immunity” kicks in, protecting those who cannot be vaccinated. Attempting to stop this growing concern former  health minister Beatrice Lorenzin introduced a policy in 2017 obligating children to receive ten compulsory vaccinations.

“Italy’s measles vaccine coverage was par with Namibia, lower than Ghana,” commented Roberto Burioni, a professor of microbiology and virology at San Raffaele University in Milan. “But the law was working, the coverage was improving. We should strengthen it, not weaken it. Now, children who are not vaccinated will endanger other children at school who are too small for vaccines or cannot be vaccinated because they suffer from immunosuppressive diseases.”

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However, political hostility quickly ensued, and Italy’s populist politicians were keen to take advantage of this. Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini repeatedly said that the 10 obligatory vaccinations, which include measles, tetanus and polio, “are useless and in many cases dangerous, if not harmful” — an idea which is devoid of any scientific base or factual truth.

Salvini and his political allies tried to delay or stop the mandatory vaccination law, but it finally entered into force today. Parents had until today to provide documentation regarding vaccines. Children under 6 and over 16 can be turned away from school. But while children aged 6-16 cannot be banned from attending school, parents will get fines of up to €500 ($560) if they send their unvaccinated children to school without a serious reason.

In addition to reducing exposure to potentially dangerous diseases, this will also ensure that children who are suffering from serious health issues, who cannot be vaccinated, can attend school safely. For instance, an 8-year-old who spent months receiving treatment for leukaemia was unable to attend school because he was at a high risk of infection because a proportion of pupils in the school had not been vaccinated — including several in the same class.