Beppe Grillo, the leader of Italy’s MoVimento 5 Stelle (M5S, Five star movement), is not new to conspiracy theories related to health. In 2008, he called AIDS “a hoax” perpetuated by pharmaceutical companies and has for years decried vaccinations as potentially fatal and linked to autism. Now, vaccination fear has led more parents to forgo immunizing their children, and as a consequence, cases of measles are on the rise.
Currently, the vaccine against measles (which is administered together with a shot against mumps and rubella) isn’t compulsory in Italy. An optimal level of vaccination would be 95% of the population (link in Italian). While at least 90% of population has received the first dose, a much lower percentage (the study doesn’t specify) of children are receiving the second dose. With 41.7 measles case per million (PDF, page 4), Italy has 26.5% of all Europe’s measles cases, second only to the Netherlands where the fundamentalist Protestant communities resist vaccinations.
And the number is on the rise: In the first four months of 2014, 1,047 new cases have been diagnosed in Italy. During the same period of 2013, there were a little more than 700 cases. Though measles is treatable, it can lead to complications including encephalitis, a disease which is deadly in 15% of cases.
Anti-vaccination sentiment is at an all-time high as noted by the Società Italiana di Pediatria (SIP, Italian society of pediatric studies), in part because of Grillo’s campaigning; his movement holds 25% seats in parliament.
This has set back Italy’s goal to eliminate measles by 2015 says Alberto Ugazio (link in Italian), the president of the Italian vaccine commission, who attributes the reduced number of vaccinations to beliefs about alleged dangerous side effects of vaccines being spread, particularly online.
M5S is using social media to spread the unfounded link between the measles vaccination and autism in the same way the party gained popularity by campaigning online. The tweet below is by an activist of the movement:
(“Vaccinations are a potential cause of autism; the secret you are not meant to know.”)
In February, the party proposed a law against the current requirement in Italy to vaccinate children for polio, tetanus, diphtheria and Hepatitis B. Along with France, Belgium, Portugal and Greece, Italy is one of five European countries with compulsory vaccination.
While in March the government of Italy answered to the resurgence of measles by setting up a commission to monitor the vaccination efforts, Grillo’s movement keeps attacking vaccinations in parliament, online and in the party’s”meetups.” According to the movement members, the side effects of vaccines go beyond autism: Paolo Vanoli, the spokesperson for health and environment of MoVimento 5 Stelle, declared that vaccinations can cause homosexuality which is, he says, a curable disease.