ROME — Over a decade ago, an activist in Italy’s Five Star Movement wrote to the nascent party’s leaders to tell them that his law firm, after years of seeking “damages from vaccination,” had convinced a judge that a vaccine was a potential source of autism.
“We’re dealing with a historic legal precedent,” he wrote emphatically.
Today that lawyer, Alfonso Bonafede, is the Italian justice minister, and his populist Five Star Movement leads the government.
The Five Star’s long history of sowing doubt about vaccines may have made its job that much harder as it seeks to convince Italians that a mass inoculation program is necessary to beat back a pandemic that has killed nearly two million people worldwide and shuttered entire economies.
The irony is not lost on Italians, who are not even Europe’s most skeptical population when it comes to the benefit of vaccines. While 62 percent of Italians have said they would get an available vaccine, according to figures by Ipsos, a polling firm, in France only 40 percent said they would be.
But it is Italy where a party that explicitly trafficked in anti-vaccine skepticism currently holds power. With Five Star’s rise, anti-vaccine campaigns are no longer merely an easy tool wielded by the political fringe to tear down established parties and gain power. They are a key factor that could determine the health and vitality of the nation at a critical juncture in the pandemic.
The first European country hit by the coronavirus, Italy is still struggling to control its spread. Like other nations, it has looked for salvation in the vaccines already available to health care workers.
But a significant number of nursing home workers appear reluctant to get the shot, prompting concerns that entrenched skepticism and confusion about the safety of vaccines may undercut the rollout.
“I’m one of those who is really dubious,” said Frida Faggi, an orderly in a nursing home in northern Italy, adding she probably would not get the vaccine.
A Five Star supporter, she worried that pharmaceutical companies had developed the vaccine too fast, that it might sicken her with autoimmune diseases and that negative reports had been censored. Others feel the same.
“Many are very skeptical,” said Barbara Codalli, who runs a nursing home in the northern province of Bergamo where 34 of the 87 residents died during the first wave. “The ignorance is immense.”
After a slow start, Italy’s vaccination program is picking up speed. More than 730,000 people have been inoculated, or more than 1 percent of the population — a higher rate than Germany’s.
But some critics wonder if things would be better if Italian populist forces had not spent nearly a decade questioning vaccines.
In particular they had entertained a connection between vaccines and autism — a belief that caught fire after a 1998 paper in the British medical journal, The Lancet, which was subsequently retracted and discredited. The study’s author lost his medical license.
The scientific consensus, supported by many rigorous studies, is that vaccines are not a cause of autism, and are safe and recommended in most cases. But doubts flowered on the…