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A one-sentence TV appearance routed the anti-vaxxers

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A single sentence during a TV talk show catapulted Italian virologist Roberto Burioni to instant media celebrity status and made him the scourge of anti-vaxxers and other pseudoscience.

In May 2016, Roberto Burioni, a virologist at Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan, Italy, was asked to appear on a popular TV talk show to face off against two opponents of vaccines – a former DJ, Red Ronnie, and an actress and TV personality, Eleonora Brigliadori. Science Mag reports that the host gave most of the air time to the Italian celebrities. Then, with just a few minutes left, he turned to Burioni. Burioni realised he didn’t have time to make the usual arguments about statistics and scientific uncertainty, so he kept his message simple: “The Earth is round, gasoline is flammable, and vaccines are safe and effective,” he said. “All the rest are dangerous lies.”

“It went off like a bomb,” Burioni recalls. Emails from viewers poured into the show, with some questioning how the publicly funded TV network hosting it could allow such ill-informed personalities to speak about medicine. Burioni took up the theme on his Facebook page, asking how one branch of government could broadcast lies about vaccines while its health agency promoted immunisation. More than 5m people responded to his comments. Radio journalist Alessandro Milan called Burioni’s rebuttal to Red Ronnie “the 13 most beautiful words heard on TV in the last year.”

The report says so began the unlikely media career of Roberto Burioni. In just a few years, he has gone from being a respected but little-known professor to a major media personality and an internet savvy advocate for science. In a country where the government has sometimes promoted dubious medicine, such as unproven stem cell therapies, Burioni has become an outspoken advocate for scientific evidence on vaccines and other medical topics, and a harsh critic of pseudoscience. Nearly 480,000 people now follow him on Facebook – an impressive number in a country of 60m. A web page he and colleagues established to provide general health information gets more than 100,000 visitors per month.

The report says Burioni, with his shock of greying hair, peaked eyebrows, and ironic smile, appears often on TV and at public events. His four recent science books for popular audiences have become best sellers. The Italian edition of Forbes magazine named him one of Italy’s top five internet game changers, and a former health minister nominated him for Italy’s gold medal in public health. Internet prominence brings trolls, and Burioni has been forced to worry about security.

The report says some respected health researchers and journalists have also been critical, saying his blunt, even abrasive manner inflames an already polarised conflict. But many public health experts credit him with changing Italy’s debate about vaccination and elevating the profile of science there.

“I think he’s had a major impact on the public’s understanding on the topic of vaccinations and science in general,” says Pier Luigi Lopalco, who studies epidemiology and public health at the University of Pisa. “He’s re-established the right of scientists to speak directly to the people without having a DJ or actor intervene.”

Science Mag report

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