Italy approves hotly contested mandatory vaccine program

MILAN (AP) - Italy's parliament on Friday gave final approval to making a slate of childhood vaccinations mandatory for school children up to age 16, a move aimed at countering an anti-vaccine trend that officials have attributed to misinformation.

The packet approved Friday was hotly contested in Italy, where the number of children being vaccinated has sunk since mandatory inoculations were dropped for school admissions nearly 20 years ago.

Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin hailed the 296-92 vote with 15 abstentions as providing "a shield for our children against very serious diseases that are still among us."

But the sharp tones of the debate before the vote didn't dissipate. Noisy protesters gathered outside parliament with signs: "Don't touch our children," and shouted at lawmakers as they passed by. A top health official in Liguria, Sonia Viale, was quoted as saying the measure marked "a return to fascism," drawing rebukes.

During the vaccine debate, Italian health officials confronted a measles outbreak that drew a U.S. travel warning and a scandal in northern Italy that involved a nurse who claimed for years to have vaccinated children but had not.

Earlier this week, Italy's highest court issued a ruling that found no connection between childhood vaccines and autism, as alleged by a parent seeking legal relief. The correlation has been widely dismissed by the scientific community.

Not only in Italy, but around Europe and the United States, parental fears about vaccines' safety have caused tens of thousands of parents to avoid vaccinating their children. World Health Organization says measles killed 35 children across Europe in the last year, calling it "an unacceptable tragedy" and noting the disease is preventable with a vaccine.

Under Italy's new requirements, parents must present proof of vaccinations to gain admission into preschools, while parents of children of mandatory school age face fines of up to 500 euros ($588) for noncompliance. The requirements cover 10 vaccinations, including diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox.

Officials dropped two diseases from the initial list of 12, meningococcal B and meningococcal C.