STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Some other news now - Italy has introduced one of the toughest vaccine measures in the world. Parents who do not vaccinate their children face steep fines and even risk losing custody of the kids. This measure comes in response to a measles outbreak after years of falling inoculation rates. So far, two children have died this year from the disease.
The government accuses a populist, anti-establishment political party of fueling a plunge in vaccine rates. The party has been spreading anti-vaccine fears, a familiar story in some ways to Americans who've also argued over vaccines. Christopher Livesay has the story from Rome.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)
CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, BYLINE: Emma Carpita is just two weeks old. Her parents, Federico and Loredana, have brought her to her first medical checkup.
PATRIZIA FRANCO: (Speaking Italian).
LIVESAY: Pediatrician Patrizia Franco hands them a list of vaccine centers in the area and asks if they have any concerns.
LOREDANA CARPITA: (Speaking Italian).
LIVESAY: "No," they say. "We think all parents should be obligated to vaccinate their children."
But not all Italians agree...
FRANCO: (Speaking Italian).
LIVESAY: ...Including their own pediatrician, as she explains between patients.
FRANCO: (Through interpreter) What I care about is the patient's health and to first do no harm. Every medical procedure has a risk. That also means vaccines.
LIVESAY: She's an advocate for the freedom to choose. But such freedom is now a thing of the past. Italy has made 12 vaccines mandatory. Kids up to 6 years old won't be accepted into nursery schools without them. And parents sending their children to school after that age without vaccinating them first will now face fines. Repeat offenders can even lose parental custody.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Italian).
LIVESAY: These parents and protesters outside the Italian Parliament believe it's gone too far.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Italian).
LIVESAY: But such skepticism is helping to fuel a measles outbreak that's hammering Italy, says Roberto Burioni. He's a professor of microbiology and virology in Milan.
ROBERTO BURIONI: Because people are not vaccinating the kids. I mean, this is the simple reason because, where the vaccination rate is around 95 percent, the virus is not able to circulate in the population. We are well below that threshold, and this is causing this outbreak, which can be very dangerous.
LIVESAY: Measles can cause encephalitis, blindness, even death. So far this year, two children have died. The Italian health ministry has recorded over 2,500 measles cases, already a tenfold spike from just two years ago. That prompted the Centers for Disease Control to issue a travel advisory for Italy and lead to Italy's strict new law. So why the growing vaccine skepticism?
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BEPPE GRILLO: (Speaking Italian).
LIVESAY: Italian officials say one reason is Beppe Grillo, a wildly popular standup comic and the leader of Italy's major populist party, the Five Star Movement.
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GRILLO: (Speaking Italian).
LIVESAY: In this routine from 1998, he mocks vaccines for weakening children's immune systems and for being a Big Pharma scam. In more recent years, he and members of his party have drawn unfounded ties between vaccines and autism. The health minister has accused them of fomenting grave and dangerous anti-scientific disinformation. That, in recent years, has driven people not to get vaccinated.
ELANA FATTORI: I think we have made a lot of mistakes, yes.
LIVESAY: Elena Fattori is a senator with the Five Star Movement. She admits it has offered a platform to anti-vaccine voices. But that was before it became Italy's biggest party.
FATTORI: We thought from the beginning that we should give voice to everybody. But now I'm convinced that, sometimes, some things are so scientific that you cannot give voice to everybody. Science is not democratic.
LIVESAY: But if you think that's the Five Star Movement's end-all, be-all on vaccines, you haven't understood it's uncanny ability to shape-shift, says Marco Cattaneo. He's the editor-in-chief of the Italian edition of Scientific American and National Geographic.
MARCO CATTANEO: They don't have a single and definite position on almost anything. So they can say you're right to someone who says vaccines are OK and you're right to someone who says, well, I have some doubts. They try to get both votes.
LIVESAY: Right now the Five Star Movement leads in the polls with elections taking place as soon as this year. And the measles outbreak is spreading. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay in Rome.
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