One of the tragedies of these post-truth times is that the lies, conspiracy theories and illusions spread by social media and populist politicians can be downright dangerous. The denial of human responsibility for climate change is one obvious example; another is opposition to vaccination. A serious outbreak of measles in Italy and in some other European countries could well be the result of a drop-off in vaccinations caused by utterly misguided and discredited claims about their dangers.
Vaccines are among the greatest achievements of medical science, an easily and safely administered defense against once common and often deadly diseases like measles, polio, smallpox, whooping cough and cervical cancer. Yet fear of vaccines has spread over the past two decades, fueled in part by an infamous study published in the medical journal Lancet in 1998 and later retracted and completely discredited.
More recently, President Trump has added his voice to vaccine skepticism, like this utterly unfounded and irresponsible tweet: “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases!” In Italy, the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) led by the comedian Beppe Grillo has campaigned actively on an anti-vaccination platform, likewise repeating the false ties between vaccinations and autism.
To these and other skeptics, the measles outbreak in Italy should sound a piercing alarm. As of April 26, the Italian Ministry of Health had reported 1,739 cases of the disease, compared with 840 in all of 2016 and only 250 in 2015. Of those stricken, 88 percent had not been vaccinated. The danger was not only to them: 159 of the cases were health care workers infected by patients. Yet studies show that 97 percent of people who receive the recommended two doses of MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine are fully protected. Most people today would not remember a time when measles — or mumps, or polio — were commonplace.
M5S may not be responsible for the entire outbreak, since vaccine skepticism predates the party’s rise. Yet the percentage of 2-year-olds given vaccinations has steadily fallen in recent years, from 88 percent in 2013 to 86 percent in 2014 and 85.3 percent in 2015. The World Health Organization regards 95 percent as the level to achieve “herd immunity,” at which point the disease poses no threat to the entire community.
Combating vaccine skepticism is not easy, because even the countless studies by innumerable health groups affirming that there is no link between vaccines and autism have failed to penetrate the fog spread by Mr. Grillo and his ilk. The Italian measles outbreak, unfortunate as it is, does give health authorities an opportunity to strengthen their case by pointing to concrete evidence of what inevitably follows when vaccinations drop off.