When it comes to vaccination and immunity, what matters is to ensure high immunity levels and not the way each EU government will decide to follow, EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis told EURACTIV.com following a heated debate on the issue in Italy.
“Whether vaccination should be compulsory or not is the prerogative of the member state,” Andriukaitis emphasised, adding that the most important thing is “reaching and maintaining a high level of immunity”.
“This is why, in April, I put forward a policy initiative that aims at increasing vaccination coverage and ensuring that everyone in the EU has access to the relevant information on vaccination, notably through a European Vaccination Information Portal to provide independent evidence on vaccines, their benefits and safety.”
The issue was raised when Italy’s new coalition government attempted to overturn a law imposing mandatory vaccination at schools.
Italy faced one of the most severe measles’ outbreak, with 4,978 cases reported from February 2017 to January 2018. In light of the increased vaccination hesitancy fueled by anti-vaccination campaigns across Europe, the previous Italian government decided to increase the number of compulsory vaccination from four to ten vaccines, for minors up to 16-years.
Under the law, non-vaccinated kids are not qualified for school entry. But several parents’ movements have opposed the law, saying it’s a breach of the right to education.
In early August, the Italian Senate approved an amendment proposed by Five Star Movement and the Lega, which wanted to make the law enforcement “lighter”. The amendment maintained the mandatory nature of the measure but not its punitive character, which blocked children’s access to school.
However, on 5 September, the same parties changed tack and presented another amendment which brings back the previous scheme. The new amendment would keep the vaccinations obligatory until March 2019 together with the fines in the event of non-compliance.
“We are satisfied with the outcome that guarantees regular school attendance to children,” a Lega source from Rome told EURACTIV.
Earlier this week, EU experts published a study that showed compulsory vaccinations had a positive impact on vaccination coverage in Italy.
“I would be happy if the Italian government would keep Lorenzin decree-law because it is working and it is already contributing to push up the vaccination coverage, which in Italy is particularly low,” said Roberto Burioni, a medical doctor and professor at Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan. Burioni became popular in recent years in Italy as a prominent figure of the pro-vaccination movement.
Positive impact on vaccination coverage in Italy
A European Commission experts’ panel published on Monday (3 September) a draft opinion on vaccination programmes and health systems in Europe, showing evidence for “a positive impact of law reinforcement of existing compulsory vaccinations on coverage” in Italy.
The decree-law was issued in June 2017 and vaccination coverage increased between 2016 and 2017, ranging from 0.9% for vaccination against tetanus at 24 months to 4.4% for MMR vaccination [jabs against measles, mumps and rubella] at 24 months,” the report noted.
The report also showed that the confidence in general in vaccination has increased in Greece, Italy, Slovenia and the UK, but saw a drop in Poland.
On the confidence in vaccine safety, it increased in Demark, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Romania, but decreased in Sweden, Finland, Germany and the Czech Republic.
European Joint Action Initiative
Commissioner Andriukaitis said the EU executive launched this week the European Joint Action on Vaccination, which will constitute an “important step” to help save the lives of Europeans, particularly the most vulnerable groups such as children.
The Joint Action was launched on 4 September in Paris and aims to strengthen the European cooperation in the field, developing practical tools for the use of health authorities and healthcare professionals in different countries to enhance vaccination coverage.
The total budget of the Joint Action is €5.8 million in 2018– 2021, and it is co-funded by the EU Health Programme (€3.5 million). Seventeen EU member states, including Italy, participate in the project, as well as third countries such as Norway, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“Infectious diseases do not stop at borders. Only close collaboration and coordination between countries in Europe can ensure an efficient and timely response. Vaccination is an act of solidarity and we need a strategic and concerted approach to address vaccine hesitancy, improve vaccination uptake in the EU and in neighbouring countries,” the EU health chief said.