05 Oct 2017

The anti-vaccination movement demonstrates alarming level of social distrust

Advocates of "freedom of choice" refer to alleged "vaccine damage", which has never been scientifically proven. But mistrust in the "system" is such that it is not enough to appeal to logic and common sense.

Cinzia Sciuto
Cinzia Sciuto MicroMega, Italy
Source: MicroMega
The anti-vaccination movement demonstrates alarming level of social distrust - NewsMavens
An electron micrograph of a herpes virus. Dr Graham Beards/Wikicommons

Why this story matters:

As in many other countries in Europe, people in Italy are going through a phase of distrust. Their suspicion is primarily directed at the political class -- the "Casta", as it has been called since a popular book entitled La Casta (The Caste) came out in 2007. However, this distrust has slowly expanded to encompass a large number of institutions, even scientific ones.

For several years now, the scientific community has been under public scrutiny and the results of its research -- especially in areas with a considerable impact on people's lives, such as medicine -- are constantly being questioned.

The questioners evoke ideological beliefs of no scientific relevance or allude to conspiracies involving large pharmaceutical companies. They see plots and corruption everywhere, and as a result, esoteric theories and questionable treatments are given undue attention.

The most recent of these controversies involved vaccines. Over the last few years, the vaccine rate for some long-gone diseases has fallen dangerously below a "safe" level which ensures non-circulation of the virus. The threshold for measles, for instance, is 95%. If more than 5% of people aren't immunized, the disease could come back.

A small but intense movement of "anti-vaxxers" has started a campaign for "vaccine freedom". Their aim is to give parents the freedom to choose what vaccines their children are given.

Dr. Roberto Burioni, one of Italy's top experts on the subject, explains in the interview linked below that "vaccinating is not an act of individual protection, but a gesture of social responsibility aimed mainly at protecting the weakest and the most unlucky."

There are, in fact, individuals who cannot be immunized for health reasons and are only protected thanks to "flock immunity" -- when the overwhelming majority of a population is vaccinated, thus preventing the virus from spreading to those who cannot be vaccinated.

To cope with the dangerous drop in the vaccination rate, the Italian government has issued a law that makes it mandatory for children in kindergarten and primary school to be immunized.

Starting from this school year, non-vaccinated children will not be allowed in kindergartens and schools unless the lack of immunization is due to health concerns. The new law has obviously sparked controversy among anti-vaxxers. The measure will in all likelihood bring about the desired results: beyond a small minority of staunch anti-vaxxers, there is a large number of people who simply lowered their guard and failed to vaccinate their children due to inertia, ignorance or laziness. A similar law issued by the region of Emilia-Romagna a few years ago brought the vaccination rate back over the fateful threshold of 95% within a few years.

Advocates of "freedom of choice" refer to alleged "vaccine damage", which has never been scientifically proven. But mistrust in the "system" is such that it is not enough to appeal to logic and common sense. We need large-scale political intervention to dissociate scientific research from the interests of pharmaceutical companies -- which are truly far-reaching -- in order to give people the confidence without which a society cannot remain cohesive.

Details from the story:

  • On August 5, 2017, a law on vaccinations requires that all children attending school or kindergarten be vaccinated against ten diseases
  • The World Health Organization's vaccination threshold for measles control is 95%
  • In 2016, only 87.3% of Italians were vaccinated against measles
  • In Emilia-Romagna, where a similar vaccination law was already implemented, vaccine rates are rising, demonstrating that the law works.
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