Angela loves to dance and now attends special ballet classes where all children have to prove they have been vaccinated.
Anti-vaccination sentiment backed by populist movement
03:05 - Source: CNN
Padua, Italy CNN  — 

When his daughter Angela was gravely ill, Nicola Pomaro made her a solemn promise: If she recovered, he would do all he could to help her live life to the full.

Angela was just 3 years old when she was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a rare blood disorder that meant her body could not produce enough red blood cells. It left her needing a bone marrow transplant.

But when Angela got better and developed a love of dance Pomaro, from Padua in northeastern Italy, was faced with a dilemma: How to find a ballet school where she would be safe from disease in a country which had one of the highest rates of measles in the world in 2017, according to the World Health Organization.

Angela had to undergo a bone marrow transplant after she was diagnosed with aplastic anemia.

Like thousands of other transplant recipients in Italy, Angela, has little or no immunity. Going about her daily life can be a gamble.

Public places like trains, airplanes, shopping malls and cinemas are all out of bounds for the 7-year-old.

Northeastern Italy has been a hotbed of the anti-vaccine movement since a judge in Rimini ruled in 2012 that the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, known as MMR, caused autism.

Claims of a link between MMR and autism – first suggested by disgraced former doctor Andrew Wakefield in a since-retracted 1998 study – have been widely discredited.

The Rimini judge’s ruling was overturned three years later, but by then it had encouraged the spread of anti-vaccine theories in Italy and around the world.

Safe, but secluded

For Angela, the risk in her region was so great that she lived in virtual seclusion for two years, unable to attend school and seeing just one vaccinated playmate and her former kindergarten teacher.

Even her elder brother Pietro, now 18, had to be sent away to stay with his grandparents every time he had the slightest cold.

Angela's compromised immune system meant her brother Pietro had to be sent away when he was ill, in case he infected her.

Two years ago, Angela’s life began to change, after Italy’s previous government made vaccinations mandatory by excluding non-immunized children from schools. Since then, the incidence of measles has halved and vaccination coverage among the whole population has improved to 92%.

It has not yet reached the 95% needed to ensure “herd immunity” required to protect people with impaired immune systems, like Angela.

But now, with populist parties the League and the Five Star Movement – both of which have embraced anti-vaccine sentiment – in power, the brief freedom Angela has gained is under threat once more.

When it came to celebrating birthdays, Angela's friends had to wear masks to help keep her safe. CNN has blurred the faces of other children in the photo to protect their privacy.

“Being sociable, Angela really suffered being isolated from her friends for so long,” says Pomaro, 53.

“She began to fall behind in terms of her development and schooling and so eventually, as a family, we were advised to start taking some risks for her benefit, ” he says. “It would be a great shame to go back and erase the small gains that have been made.”