Populist revolt in Italy leaves young at risk of measles

Published by The Times (6th March, 2018)

If there is one clear message from the Italian election, it is the howl of anger against a political system seen to have failed. Now a party founded by a comedian vies for power with a coalition including neo-fascists led by a convicted fraudster.

This is the latest populist revolt, raging against the state machinery. And one policy serves as metaphor for this rejectionist movement that despises elites and experts: the backing of a debunked health conspiracy theory that endangers all our children. We have seen it in the United States with Donald Trump. Now we see it in Italy.

Two parties that took 50 per cent of the votes between them, Five Star Movement and the League, have pledged to overturn a law enforcing a dozen vaccinations for children before they turn 16. It was passed last year after a sixfold rise in measles in the country, with more than 5,000 cases and four deaths. This followed plummeting child immunisation rates, well below safety levels urged by the World Health Organisation.

This highly contagious disease used to kill millions each year before the development of vaccines that rely on almost all children being inoculated to contain its spread. But public health efforts suffered a significant reversal last year with a surge in measles cases across Europe, led by Italy and Romania. Britain was not immune. The reason is simple: anti-establishment populists inflamed an “anti-vax” movement.

These discredited ideas date back two decades to when the London gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield claimed possible links between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella shot (MMR). His report, based on just 12 cases, was so flawed that he was later struck off for ‘dishonest’ conduct.

But even the silliest ideas can survive and thrive on the internet. Wakefield moved to Texas and became a hero to conspiracy theorists, who see a sinister cover-up by medical and political elites. Their paranoia was fuelled by Trump, who was backed by Wakefield and tweeted about ‘doctor-inflicted autism’. I saw the legacy last year in Minnesota with an outbreak that mostly affected the country’s biggest Somali community. Never mind that measles used to be the biggest killer of children under five in Africa.

It is sad, but no surprise, to see the eruption of this anti-establishment idea in Italy, a society scarred by state failure and corruption. Five Star leaders have long pushed the link to autism, while the League leader insists that jabs should be voluntary.

But this cause is dangerous, ill-informed and insular. It flies in the face of evidence, ignores progress and puts others at risk. In that sense it is a perfect reflection of populist parties.

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