The number of measles cases in Italy has tripled this year compared to last year after an anti-vaccine political party gained power there, health officials said this week.
More than 700 measles cases have been recorded so far in 2017, compared with 220 in the same period last year, according to The Guardian. And the cases are concentrated in Italy’s wealthy regions of Piedmont, Lazio, Tuscany, and Lombardy.
The dramatic spike in the number of cases directly corresponds to regions that have elected members of the Five Star Movement (M5S), a political party that campaigns on false ideas of vaccines being linked to autism and other illnesses, according to the report. Two M5S members were elected mayors in the regions last year.
The outbreak also corresponds to a drop in the number of vaccinated children in Italy, according to the Guardian. The number of vaccinated 2-year-olds has dropped from 88% in 2013, to 86% in 2014, to 85.3% in 2015.
A similar measles outbreak in Romania has affected more than 3,400 people and killed at least 17 because of a drop in vaccinations, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), which said the outbreak there could worsen. Austria and Germany are also experiencing outbreaks.
“This poses a risk of potential repeated exportation to other [European] countries,” the organization said, according to Healio.
In Italy, government health officials are hoping to dissuade the public from being convinced by the tenuous connections drawn by M5S.
“People from the M5S say measles is normal, and that every three years we have a peak, so why is it dangerous? Well, I say it’s not normal to have peaks or outbreaks – we are supposed to be a measles-free country,” Raniero Guerra, the director general for preventive health at the ministry of health, told The Guardian.
The M5S party has also tried to draw links between vaccines and leukemia, poisoning, immunodepression, cancer, inflammation, allergies, and inheritable genetic mutations, despite condemnation from the medical community.
Italy has been engulfed by fears of vaccines in recent years amid growing distrust of government, according to The Guardian. In 2012, a court sided with the family of an autistic child that the disease was probably caused by a vaccines for measles, mumps, and rubella. The ruling was overturned three years later, but it fueled parental fears over the links, which have been roundly disproven.
One parent who spoke to the Guardian said she’d rather her children have measles, “a manageable disease,” than get an injection. Measles can cause fever, spots on the mouth and throat, red eyes and sensitivity to light, and cold symptoms. It can be debilitating and lead to complications including blindness and death.
The World Health Organization advises that at least 95% of children should be vaccinated to prevent the disease from spreading again.
Guerra, the director at the ministry of health, said that the country must figure out a better way to educate parents amid the mistrust of government.
“We’re talking about letting them know what appropriate information they can access, rather than using whatever rubbish is published on the internet – because that’s another issue,” she said. “The only weapon we have against serious diseases such as measles is vaccination: enough with the false information. There is no correlation between vaccines and autism.”