Italy warns of measles epidemic as vaccine debate rages


ROME (Reuters) - Italy said on Wednesday it was suffering a measles epidemic following a fall-off in vaccinations, as the United States issued a warning to visitors about the outbreak of the potentially fatal disease.

The Health Ministry said there had been almost 1,500 registered cases of measles so far this year against some 840 in all of 2016 and some 250 in 2015.

"Italy and Romania have an epidemic at the moment," said Walter Ricciardi, president of the Higher Health Institute, adding that he understood why the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention had issued an advisory this week.

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Ricciardi told Radio 24 that unlike in Italy, the United States had launched a massive campaign to convince parents to vaccinate their children.

The Higher Health Institute says only around 85 percent of two-year-olds are being vaccinated against measles at present, well below the 95 percent threshold recommended by the World Health Organization to block the illness.

The center-left government has accused the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) of spreading concern amongst parents by questioning the safety of some vaccines and by loudly denouncing efforts to make vaccinations mandatory.

"Vaccinations have played a vital role in eradicating terrible illnesses ... but nonetheless, they bring a risk associated with side-effects," M5S founder Beppe Grillo wrote in 2015, saying mandatory vaccination represented a gift for multinational pharmaceutical firms.

A leading M5S politician, Andrea Cecconi, suggested last month the jump in measles cases might be part of a natural cycle for the illness rather than a preventable epidemic.

Renewed concern over measles came amid fury amongst doctors over a program on state broadcaster RAI that highlighted the possible side-effects of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which protects against cervical cancer.

The M5S defended the report, but health officials accused RAI of being unnecessarily alarmist.

"It is very serious that a TV program, which is supposed to be at the service of citizens, spreads fear by telling lies and giving credence to the anti-vaccine lobby," said Giuseppe Mele, chairman of the Italian Society of Paediatricians.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Adrian Croft)

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