Italian father in passionate vaccines plea to Veneto governor

Nicola Pomaro and his daughter Image copyright Nicola Pomaro
Image caption Mr Pomaro says his immuno-compromised daughter could die if diseases such as measles flourish in the general population

An Italian father has written a heartfelt letter to a regional governor, urging him not to challenge a new law making vaccination compulsory.

Nicola Pomaro's daughter has low immunity because she has been through chemotherapy. She cannot be vaccinated.

Plummeting rates of vaccination - which the new law seeks to reverse - are "a mortal danger to my daughter" and thousands of others, the letter says.

He urges Veneto Governor Luca Zaia to abandon his legal challenge.

Measles rates have soared in Italy in 2017 as vaccination rates have fallen well below the 95% threshold which scientists say prevents the disease circulating in the general population.

Officials have blamed the declining take-up in part on anti-vaccination statements by the populist Five Star Movement, as well as the now-discredited work of Andrew Wakefield, a doctor struck off the UK medical register in 2010.

In some Italian regions, doctors themselves have argued that vaccines are not risk-free and that parents should be "free to choose" whether to vaccinate.

But the new law, passed in May, decrees that children up to the age of six will now need to be immunised to enter nursery or pre-school, and parents who send their children to school after that age without vaccinating them first could be fined.

What's behind the new law?

Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption Italy is seeing a measles epidemic, its health ministry says

When the law was passed last month, Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni blamed the "spread of anti-scientific theories" for falling vaccination rates.

The compulsory vaccination schedule would cover 12 conditions - from polio to measles to whooping cough.

Let's take measles. Italy is seeing a measles epidemic. So far this year, the health ministry says, it has recorded 3,074 cases of measles - compared to 844 for the whole of 2016.

And of those, 89% of cases were among the unvaccinated.

Immunisation rates have fallen significantly over recent years - 88% of two year olds were vaccinated in 2013, 86% in 2014 and 85.3% in 2015. That's well under the 95% rate recommended by the World Health Organisation to achieve "herd immunity".

Five Star Movement (M5S) officials deny advocating an explicitly anti-vaccine programme.

But in 2014, the M5S proposed legislation highlighting the alleged "link between vaccinations and specific illnesses such as leukaemia, poisoning, inflammation, immuno-deficiency, inheritable genetic mutations, cancer, autism and allergies".

Earlier this month, Mr Zaia, who represents the right-wing Northern League, said such measures were overly coercive and he would challenge them in the Constitutional Court. He said he did not doubt the usefulness of vaccines, but that the state should instead participate in a "dialogue" with parents.

Mr Pomaro's daughter was a healthy three year old when in 2015 she became ill with severe aplastic anaemia, a "very serious and deadly bone marrow disease", he writes in his letter to Governor Zaia (in Italian).

'Disease is impartial'

She underwent a bone marrow transplant in the US and chemotherapy, which compromised her immune system. She "spent three months locked in a [sterile] room... several times in danger of losing her life due to opportunistic infections".

"Dozens and dozens of children live the same ordeal every year at the Transplant Centre of the Oncology Department of Padua [a city in Veneto], which we now know really well.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Parents demanding "freedom of choice" when it comes to immunisation have become an increasingly vocal force in Italy

"So many different diseases, one thing in common: immune deficiency. Due to illness and treatment, these children for several years have a weak immune system and cannot be vaccinated" - placing them at serious risk of contracting what are for them fatal diseases as vaccination rates fall, Mr Pomaro writes.

"You see, governor, there is nothing more impartial than disease. Without discriminating, it affects everyone, without regard for social status, bank balance, political or religious beliefs.

"Come on, please, talk to the doctors who treated my daughter, who treat children every day with terrible diseases. Ask them if the vaccination obligation is necessary," Mr Pomaro signs off.

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