In late 2015, Italian virologist Roberto Burioni took part in a Q&A with young mothers on a Facebook group and was alarmed to find many of them spouting conspiracy theories about vaccinations. The measles shot, they said, gives children autism.
The 55-year-old decided to take a deeper look online and realized there was an ecosystem of Italian anti-vaccination groups on the social media site. In spring 2016, Burioni sat down, fired up his laptop and began debunking anti-vaccination conspiracy theories on his public Facebook page.
“I started writing because I was fed up of social media being at the hands of people telling lies,” Burioni, who is a professor of microbiology and virology at the Vita-Salute University San Raffaele, Milan, says during a phone interview. “All the voices [online] in Italy were against vaccination. There was no debate and I did what I could to start one.” Read more here.
Just over two years later that debate has gone from an online feud to a live political issue in the Italian general election due on March 4. As skepticism about vaccines has become widespread in Italy, so-called “anti-vaxxers” have become a voting bloc for the populist parties vying for votes. As a result, two of the leading populist parties — the far-right League (formerly the Northern League) and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (5SM) — have pledged, if elected, to scrap a law passed in July that made ten vaccinations compulsory for children under the age of 16. If they do, health experts warn it could be a huge step backwards in the global fight for children’s health.
Vaccine skepticism in Italy dates back to a debunked 1998 study by Andrew Wakefield that linked the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) shot typically given to children after their first birthday to autism. The discredited idea took hold among an “intellectual fringe” in Italy, says Andrea Grignolio, a medicine historian at the La Sapienza University of Rome. The skeptics tend to be “rich and older parents,” he says, “who are susceptible to both alternative treatments, like homeopathy, and conspiracy theories.”