Meet The Italian Doctor Using Facebook To Fight Anti-Vaxxers

Calling vaccinations dangerous "is like claiming that the earth is flat."

04/12/2016 04:52 pm ET
Patrick Sison/Associated Press

Shocked by the growing number of children who die from vaccine-preventable diseases in Italy -- as well as stories of parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids -- a professor of microbiology and virology has decided to take on anti-vaxxers where they spread misinformation: on Facebook.

For the more than 20,000 followers of his Facebook page, Dr. Roberto Burioni, a professor at the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan, Italy, explains the science behind vaccines and uses scientific data to refute rumors about their dangers. When he is not citing scientific studies, he pegs his advice to persuasive anecdotes or real-life events that have taken place around the world.

As a cautionary tale, for example, Burioni shared a photograph of Brenden Hall, an Australian swimmer, who lost most of his hearing and his right leg at age 6 due to complications from chickenpox, a preventable disease. (Hall went on to win two gold medals in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.)

Burioni cites Hall's experience to demonstrate that chickenpox, a common childhood virus, can still have serious repercussions -- and to expose as ridiculous the anti-vaccine stance that preventable diseases aren't a serious health risk. 

"Be careful when the antivaccinista tells you: ‘What's wrong with a little chickenpox? I've had it, and I'm still alive and well!'" Burioni quips in the post above. "In that case, you would be looking straight at another Olympic champion -- one who's earned a medal for stupidity!" 

The post is characteristic of Burioni's approach on Facebook, where he often aims to draw lessons from real-world stories while offering his opinions in a blunt, accessible style. 

Burioni's goal is to talk to parents directly, using real-world examples. In another post, he describes a case from New Zealand of Alijah Williams, who was infected with tetanus when he was 7 years old after he got a small cut on his foot. Alijah's parents had previously refused to get their son the vaccine that protects against tetanus -- a decision, they now admit was "made without facts" and one that would later put their child at risk.

“We often think that tetanus is only a risk for large wounds, but that's a mistake: the truth is exactly the opposite," writes Burioni.  "Deep cuts or wounds are the most dangerous, the hardest to disinfect." He continues: 

I could tell you about this illness, but I'd rather share the words of the parents of this poor child with you: "He was screaming in agony. It was atrocious. He had spasms every three minutes, biting his tongue and bleeding, and he squeezed my hands and said, 'Save me, daddy.' His little arms contracted, his back arched and his jaws were blocked shut."

The doctors, in an attempt to save his life, were forced to put the boy in an induced coma, conduct a tracheotomy and give him artificial respiration (take a look at the poor child in this photo). He suffered horribly, but the child made it out okay: A few months later he was healthy again.

Unfortunately not all kids are this lucky. Many patients die, and many more suffer permanent damage.

Responding To Skeptical Parents

Burioni also takes time to respond to questions from skeptical parents. In one of his posts he recounts how a single mother had asked him: “Given that there's a law established to pay people back for the damages incurred by vaccines, why should I believe that they are completely innocuous?"

Providing context, the doctor replied: “Such a law exists, and was established for a vaccine against polio that was shown to cause paralysis during the 1990s.”

He also addresses misconceptions about contracting diseases. He says that another parent asked, “Why should I vaccinate my child for Hepatitis B, which everyone knows is contracted through sex?” Burioni responded, “It is contracted through saliva, blood and other biological liquids, and can easily be picked up through something as banal as a simple cut.”

Responding to concerns about the risk of allergy associated with vaccination, he writes: “Allergic reactions are extremely rare, roughly one case in every 2 to 3 million vaccinations. That's why it's important to remain in the doctor's clinic for an extra half hour following a vaccination. An allergic reaction is easy to deal with. There's a much higher risk of anaphylactic shock associated with giving your kid a peanut to eat."

Taking On The Autism Debate

Burioni takes a case-by-case approach as he deconstructs the claims propagated by the anti-vaccination movement -- most notably, the claim linking vaccinating to autism. The anti-vaccination hysteria can be traced back to a flawed paper published in 1998 by disgraced former physician Andrew Wakefield -- he was later stripped of his license by the U.K.’s General Medical Council, which said he had "abused his position of trust" -- in British journal The Lancet, which suggested a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism. Despite being widely discredited and then completely retracted by the journal, the rate of MMR vaccinations dropped in various countries after the study’s publication and the media’s sensationalist coverage. The repercussions can still be felt. Today, the practices and beliefs of the anti-vaccine movement worldwide have contributed to resurgences of preventable diseases: In 2014, for example, the measles rate in the U.S. hit a 20-year high.

Nowadays, claiming that there is a connection between the MMR vaccine and neurological disorders, and autism in particular is, according to Burioni, "like claiming that the earth is flat."

A version of this post first appeared on HuffPost Italy. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.

Suggest a correction