By Ted Kupper
While spending this past summer working in Italy, I noticed several parallels between the country’s changing political environment and the current situation in the United States. A combination of far-right conservative and populist movements have wrested control of the country’s government. Anti-immigrant sentiment is rampant. The country’s political leaders are displaying a strange proclivity for Vladimir Putin and Russia. Before arriving in Italy I had done my research on the political situation, and I was somewhat prepared for all of these developments. Completely unexpected for me, however, was the rise of Italy’s anti-vaccine movement.
Prior to my arrival in Italy (and perhaps due to my own naivete), I believed the anti-vaccine movement to be an American peculiarity. This is far from the case. Measles rates in Europe have doubled from 2017 to 2018, and the rise of the anti-vaccine movement is to blame. The exact reason why anti-vaccine hysteria is spreading is an open question, but there is no doubt that politicians have co-opted the issue to increase their popular appeal.
During the Italian national election in March of 2018, two different parties dominated at the polls and have since formed a coalition government: the right-wing, anti-immigrant Lega party, and the populist, anti-establishment Movimento Cinque Stelle (5-Star Movement). Last year, Italy’s prior administration under the liberal Democratic Party instituted a regulation mandating 10 different vaccines for children before attending school. However, Beppe Grillo, the founder of the 5-Star movement and a professional comedian, stated in 2015 that vaccines were dangerous and should not be compulsory. Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega Party and current Italian Deputy Prime Minister, has also spoken out against obligating vaccines. In July, Italy’s new Health Minister Giulia Grillo (no relation to Beppe) announced a new policy of “self-certification” — no longer would Italian parents be required to present documentation of vaccination from a medical professional to enroll their children in school. The new law stipulates that schools take parents at their word.
Such a policy opens the door for Italian parents to send unvaccinated children to school, a dangerous practice that will undoubtedly lead to an increase in measles cases throughout the country. Why are politicians caving to — and playing on — the unfounded fears that vaccines do more harm than good?
Beyond its status as a pseudoscientific movement, anti-vaccination campaigns are a manifestation of a growing worldwide anti-establishment wave. It is an opportunity for political parties to advocate for an expansion of civil liberties that have been curtailed by an “overreaching” federal government, as well a chance to play on civilian fears to rally their political bases. Salvini has called vaccines “in many cases dangerous,” exploiting widespread but baseless concerns that vaccines cause autism. In France, President of the right-wing National Rally party Marine Le Pen has voiced her opposition to mandatory vaccination. Poland’s conservative government is inching its way towards legislation similar to Italy’s. The rise of right-wing popularity throughout Europe has coincided with growing distrust in the efficacy of vaccines.
Here in the United States, aversion to vaccination is widely reported but less prevalent among government officials. In 2014, Donald Trump tweeted about a hypothetical scenario in which a young child is “pumped with a massive shot of many vaccines” and is later diagnosed with autism. He went on to tweet that there are “many such cases!” of this type of incident. He has since backed off of those claims, however, and the Republican party does not currently support an anti-vaccination platform. Yet Trump’s foray into the anti-vaccination movement has only stoked the fears of American vaccine skeptics.
It is hard to pinpoint an exact reason why the anti-vaccination movement has spread so quickly and effectively. Because the prevalence of diseases such as smallpox and measles has dwindled in the past few decades, fewer and fewer people actually witness their severity firsthand. People become less fearful as a result, and thus do not see the necessity in vaccinating their children. This phenomenon is not reserved for only the uneducated, either; studies have shown nurses to be one of the populations most averse to receiving flu vaccines, which has led to various court cases regarding the civil liberties of hospital workers.
The amount of disinformation propagated on the internet is undoubtedly to blame for the proliferation of the anti-vaccination movement as well. Various blogs and seemingly official websites spread unsubstantiated anecdotes about children afflicted with serious disease following routine vaccination. The “National Vaccine Information Center,” for example, boasts a website that looks as if it could be a United States government entity, but it is not. Instead, it disseminates myths about the dangers posed by the routine MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, among others.
As this problem expands globally, various countries have taken policy steps to encourage citizens to vaccinate their children. Australia, for example, offers a financial incentive: 129 Australian dollars to families for each child that meets immunization requirements. Others, like Slovenia, fine families who have not met state-mandated vaccination requirements. Here in the United States, California passed a law in 2015 requiring all children without explicit medical exemption to be fully vaccinated in order to attend school. Yet nationwide, Mississippi and West Virginia are the only other states with similar laws on the books.
Current government officials and heads of state have an enormous responsibility to reassure the public about the importance and effectiveness of vaccines. After Matteo Salvini and Giulia Grillo publicly stated their opposition to mandatory vaccination, they were asked whether or not they would vaccinate their young children. Both answered that their children would be vaccinated. Such a response is beyond simple political hypocrisy; it is incredibly dangerous and manipulative. Salvini plays to the masses, sowing fear where he thinks it will benefit him politically. As a self-styled political outsider, stoking anger and distrust in the Italian establishment does just that. To decry vaccines publicly and then employ them in private is irresponsible behavior from a political leader whom millions look to for guidance.
While it’s hard to deny that the anti-vaccination campaign is pseudoscience in its purest form, the balance between the maintenance of public health and the protection of civil liberties is a delicate one. One must only look to the horrors of the Tuskegee Experiment for an example of the federal government failing to act in the best interests of citizens’ health. When it comes to vaccinations, though, the stakes are too high to allow room for error. It has taken humanity centuries to bring diseases such as measles to the brink of eradication, and today we are in profound danger of backsliding.
Ted Kupper is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and an Editor of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal.