137th IPU Assembly
St. Petersburg, Russian Federation 14–18 October 2017
Standing Committee on Sustainable Development, Finance and Trade
Using science and research to achieve the highest health standards
Tuesday, 17 October 2017 (4.30 – 6.30 p.m.) Hall no.1, Tavrichesky Palace
Contribution of Pia Locatelli, Italian Delegation
The dissemination of misleading, antiscientific and delusional ideas, fake news and actual hoax is not recent and is not confined to health.
A masterpiece of Italian literature by Alessandro Manzoni – The Betrothed – details the tragedy of the unlucky people who were accused of spreading the plague through mysterious potions, in order to serve the interests of undertakers and those who carried the sick. Centuries passed and the internet came along. The dissemination of fake news has now become viral. In the case of vaccines it seems it all started in the late 1990s with a simple case of scientific fraud by British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield.
Still in the 1990s, the suspicion arose that children’s immunization was related to the sudden infant death syndrome.
Today part of the population mistrusts vaccines and it is difficult to overcome this feeling because, luckily, vaccines have been actually effective throughout all these years and the perception of having escaped an imminent danger of horrible illness has disappeared. But this is precisely thanks to the vaccines. Suffice it to think of polio, which was eradicated following the introduction of Sabin’s vaccine in the 1960s.
Then it so happens that in Turin, Italy, a seven-year-old girl was recently hospitalized in a critical condition for suspected tetanus. When the news was published in the newspapers the following day, as many as two hundred people rushed to the hospital for a shot of the vaccine.
The role of media is key in steering the perception of public opinion in this field. According to a survey by Italy’s Censis research centre, in 2014, 42.8% of parents decided to vaccinate their children after gathering information online and 62.1% were convinced that vaccines can cause serious illnesses.
During this year 2017, the situation in Italy has profoundly changed and the Government was obliged to take action without taking heed of protest by co-called no-vax movements, as a quick succession of cases of measles caused the death of 4 patients. The last bulletin of the Ministry of Health shows that 4,652 cases of measles were reported in Italy until October 8th 2017 and that in 88% of cases the infection attacked unvaccinated people.
This a worrisome situation because in the first semester of this year Italy was the first country in Europe in absolute terms for cases of measles and the fifth in the world after India (35,486), Nigeria (5,914), Pakistan (5.375) and China (4,329) with the difference that Italy has a population of 60 million inhabitants while the other four countries together account for half of the world population.
In view of the above and also considering that 95% vaccine coverage is needed in order to be safe from measles – in Italy it is around 85% – 5 months ago the Italian Government decided to enact a decree-law to make 12 children’s vaccines – the number was later reduced to 10 – compulsory for children under 17. This decision is fully justified, the only flaw being that it was made too late.
Too late because it is not easy to fight against disinformation accusing politicians and scientists to be under the thumb of “Big Pharma”, a sort of supranational entity causing the onset of illnesses in order to sell drugs and vaccines. No doubt, pharmaceutical companies invest in research to obtain profits, since they are no charities, but today in Italy, 291 million euros are spent on vaccines, equal to a mere 1.4% of the total health budget, while over one billion is spent for stomach ache or high blood pressure: not even half the turnover of the leading producer of homeopathic drugs.
The accusation does not consider the social and economic advantage for the whole society of preventing a very high number of victims and seriously ill patients by spending a relatively limited amount of money.
A high-level independent scientific committee should have taken the lead to blow away the curtain of lies and ignorance that often obscure medicine and health. Or at least such a Committee might have helped people understand that the State does not fear the assessment of an authoritative third party. Again, an opportunity was missed.
This battle has to be fought on the battlefields of information and the media. Phoney theories worthy of second-rate science-fiction plots, hoax and fake news that have the power to actually steer public opinion call for an investment in educational campaigns. What is at stake is maintaining a reasonable level of civilization in our society as we know it.