Increasing geographical mobility and international travel augment the ease and speed by which infectious diseases can spread across large distances. It is therefore incumbent upon each state to ensure that immunisation programmes are effective and that herd immunity is achieved. Across Europe, a range of immunisation policies exist: compulsion, the offer of financial incentives to parents or healthcare professionals, social and professional pressure, or simply the dissemination of clear information and advice. Until recently, immunisation against particular communicable diseases was compulsory in Italy. The Italian National Vaccination Plan (NVP) (2005–7) paved the way for regions to suspend the sanctions associated with compulsory vaccinations for children when certain criteria are met—for example when immunisation coverage is high and when effective monitoring/surveillance systems are in place—and thus marked a milestone in the move from compulsory to voluntary immunisation. The forthcoming NVP for 2008–10 confirms the liberal approach to vaccination in Italy as it entrusts to the regions responsibility for the achievement and maintenance of herd immunity. This paper reviews the arguments for and against compulsory and voluntary immunisation in relation to the Italian NVP (2005–7) and in the context of the diverse immunisation policies that exist across Europe. It concludes with cautious support for the NVP and an associated shift from compulsory to voluntary immunisation in Italy, and draws similarities between issues concerning regional variation in immunisation policy in Italy and national variation in immunisation policy across Europe and beyond.
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Competing interests: None declared.
Funding: This paper is partly based on research conducted for the European Public Health Ethics Network (EuroPHEN) project funded by the European Commission’s Fifth Framework (QLG6-CT-2002-02320).