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The story of how vaccines came to be questioned as a cause of autism dates back to the 1990s. In 1995, a group of British researchers published a cohort study in the Lancet showing that individuals who had been vaccinated with the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR) were more likely to have bowel disease than individuals who had not received MMR. One of these researchers was gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, MD, who went on to further study a possible link between the vaccine and bowel disease by speculating that persistent infection with the vaccine virus caused disruption of the intestinal tissue that in turn led to bowel disease and neuropsychiatric disease (specifically, autism). In March 2019, a large-scale study conducted by Statens Serum Institut following over 650,000 children for over 10 years found no link between the vaccine and autism, even among children with autistic siblings.
In 2017 Italy Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni blamed the “spread of anti-scientific theories” for decreased vaccinations and rising rates of some diseases. That’s why the government of Italy has made 12 vaccinations mandatory for children who enroll in state-run schools. After that, standards were weakened. A temporary measure relaxing vaccination requirements expired on March 10 and a previous, stricter law returned to force. Around 300 children in Bologna, Italy, were not eligible to attend kindergarten this week. The NY Times reports:
Dozens of other children across Italy were also likely to be affected, said Mario Rusconi, president of the Association of Head Teachers and Senior Staff in Lazio, Rome’s region.
A 2017 law made 10 vaccines obligatory for children who enrolled in Italian schools, a response to a worrisome decline in vaccinations nationwide and a measles outbreak that same year.
But last year, the Health Ministry, headed by a member of the Five Star Movement, one of the parties in the coalition government, adopted a temporary measure to allow children to stay in school as long as their parents attested they had been vaccinated. A doctor’s note was not needed.
That measure expired on March 10, and the 2017 law now applies again.
Another part of the law says that parents of elementary and middle school pupils risk fines of up to 500 euros if they don’t have doctor’s notes showing that their children were vaccinated against the required diseases.
For years, confusion about vaccines has reigned in Italy. The co-founder of the Five Star Movement has mentioned the erroneous connection between vaccines and autism, while the current deputy prime minister campaigned against the 2017 law that made vaccines compulsory.
“Over the past year and a half, most parents have responsibly vaccinated their children and the number of vaccinated pupils has risen,” Mario Rusconi, president of the Association of Head Teachers and Senior Staff in Lazio, said. “But there still are differences across regions.”
Newly released figures show that Italy is nearing, and in some regions has already reached, a national immunization rate of 95 percent, the World Health Organization’s target. In 2017, vaccination rates were around 80 percent.