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Italian government 'anti-scientific,' says health czar

Cristina Burack
January 2, 2019

Walter Ricciardi of Italy's National Institute of Health slammed the populist government for threatening public health through anti-vaccine policies. He also warned against political interference in science worldwide.

Walter Ricciardi
Ricciardi receiving his flu shot in 2014Image: Imago

The president of Italy's national health research organization, who announced that he was stepping down from his position in December, said Monday that the anti-scientific positions and xenophobic views of members of the current populist government were behind his resignation.

In an interview with Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Walter Ricciardi of Italy's National Institute of Health (ISS) said that, "Representatives of the government have endorsed unscientific or frankly anti-scientific positions on many issues."

Ricciardi also said that after four and a half years at the institute, he had achieved the goals he set out to accomplish: the financial recovery, reorganization and relaunch of the ISS.

Italy is currently governed by the far-right Northern League and the populist Five Star Movement (FSM).

Italy's 'anti-vax' populist politicians

Ricciardi aimed his criticism at League head and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is also the deputy prime minister.

"It's clear that when the deputy prime minister says that he, as a father, believes there are too many vaccines, and that they are useless and dangerous, that it's not just an unscientific approach. It's anti-scientific."

Salvini leans back in a chair
Salvini has fought to loosen vaccine requirements and made unfounded claims that migrants bring infectious diseaseImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Antimiani

In 2017, the previous center-left government instituted compulsory vaccination for school children against 10 diseases including measles, tetanus and polio. FSM and League politicians, then in the opposition, opposed the law, saying it benefited pharmaceutical companies and making the discredited claim that vaccines can cause autism. In August 2018 with the populist government in control, the Italian upper house of parliament passed a bill eliminating compulsory vaccination.

The World Health Organization warned as recently as November 2018 that measles rose 30 percent worldwide in 2017, including in European countries due to misinformation about a vaccine proven to be safe.

Read more: Measles cases soaring in Europe, WHO warns

France has also seen pushback against compulsory vaccination in recent years from its country's "anti-vax" movement. And in Germany, a documentary film released in September 2018 called Eingeimpft ("vaccinated"), which follows a family debate over whether to have their young children vaccinated, was criticized for giving voice to anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists and spreading disproven information. 

Italian government threatens public health

In the interview, Riccardi also more broadly criticized the government for threatening public health with various policies.

"Saying repeatedly that migrants carry diseases is groundless and ... forces a self-censorship in order not to contradict the political line," he said, also adding that government insistence that waste-to-energy plants were "a thing of the past" was nonsensical. "And yet these are key issues for disease prevention and public health," he said.

Stay out of science, politics!

Ricciardi said that he had a good relationship with Minister of Health Giulia Grillo, a FSM politician with no relation to the movement's founder, Beppe Grillo. He confirmed a statement from the health minister that ISS had never faced any pressure from the government to influence the scientific direction of ISS.

"Woe is us if politics interferes with science," he said. "Science has only one method and it is necessary for politics to respect it, just as it is necessary for scientists to make the best of their knowledge available to politics."

In December the Italian government shocked the country's scientific community by dismissing the entire committee of technical and scientific experts who serve as health policy advisers to the government.

Ricciardi, an internationally recognized health expert, drew parallels between the populist government in Italy and US President Donald Trump, saying they shared skepticism towards science.

"All this reminds me of Donald Trump's recommendation to the National Institutes of Health Institute to no longer use the term 'evidence-based,'" Ricciardi said. "It's an approach taken by populists, who have great difficulty in interacting with science."

In December 2017, the Trump administration prohibited officials at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a subset of the Department of Health and Human Services, from using the words "evidence-based" and "science-based."