Pop Medicine: Burioni And Scientific Dissemination In The Social Media Era

The coronavirus chaos gave a man the opportunity to emerge within the Italian public opinion: Roberto Burioni.

Roberto Burioni
International Journalism Festival / CC BY-SA

The coronavirus chaos gave a man the opportunity to emerge within the Italian public opinion: Roberto Burioni

A 2019 Eurobarometer survey revealed that the majority of European citizens think that vaccines are effective, but the extent of agreement varies considerably across the 27 countries. If in the Netherlands 76% of the population think they are “definitely” effective, in Italy this share falls to 49%, and in Austria to 32%. Moreover, 48% of the respondents at the European level believe that “vaccines can often produce severe side effects.”

Do Europeans trust science?

The issue of how science should be communicated is becoming hotter during these coronavirus days, where multiple sources of information overlap and contradict themselves. Notwithstanding the declarations made by official authorities such as the World Health Organization and the national health ministries, newspapers, blog, social media and word-of-mouth are flooding public opinion with contradicting data and information.

Interestingly enough, this chaos gave a man the opportunity to emerge within the Italian public opinion: Roberto Burioni. Back in 2018, he was already known for his engagement against the “no-vax” (anti-vaccination) movement, when he replied to a statement made by the former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini about the presumed uselessness of vaccination. As soon as the coronavirus spread to Italy, Burioni promptly declared that the virus was much more serious than a common flu, and that quarantine represented an appropriate measure for infected persons — contrary to what some sources of information were arguing. Through his Facebook page and his blog Medical Facts, Burioni and his team provide accurate scientific information about a variety of topics, such as vaccination, but also food habits, children, etc. Information is always short, clear and precise and thus accessible to the general public, but also accompanied by reliable scientific sources.

Who is Roberto Burioni

In the fake news time we are living in, checking sources of information is always a good idea. Roberto Burioni, born 1962, is professor of medicine specialized in microbiology and virology at the University Vita-Salute San Raffaele in Milan. He combines his professional activity of doctor and researcher with scientific dissemination, as he also authored the book “Il vaccino non è un’opinione” (Vaccination is not an option), in which he tries to make the arguments in support of vaccination, but understandable to the general public. This week Burioni is publishing his new book: “Virus, la grande sfida. Dal coronavirus alla peste: come la scienza può salvare l’umanità” (Virus, the great challenge. From Coronavirus to plague: how science can save humankind).

His unexpected fame began in 2016, when he was invited to a popular Italian TV show in an episode about vaccination, together with two celebrities from the Italian show business. The two celebrities got much of the attention, while Burioni only the last five minutes of the show. Given the short time left to his intervention, he released only this statement: “The Earth is round, gasoline is flammable, vaccines safe and effective. Everything else is just dangerous lies.” The day after, Burioni complained on his Facebook page about the episode and, especially, about the dangerous space left to vaccination opponents in the Italian television. From that moment on, he was invited to many other TV shows, interviewed by the most read Italian newspapers and his Facebook page has reached more than 570 thousands likes. His book made the rest.

Now, the spread of coronavirus to Italy drew the public attention to scientific issues such as the way in which the COVID-19 virus passes from one person to another, which are the symptoms, who is more at risk etc. Burioni is trying to answer these questions in the most objective way possible through his videos, blog posts and interviews. In particular, Burioni strongly backed the measures taken by the Italian government to limit contagion such as school closures and the suspension of public events, trying to convince people it is the only way to get out of this situation. Notwithstanding the alarm level and the invitation to stay at home, many Italians were still going on ski trips on the mountains until the lockdown, seeming to ignore what is at stake.

Should science be “pop” to reach the general public?

Burioni has many supporters, but also many opponents. Criticism ranges from conspiracy hypotheses, according to which he would detain some patents and thus would have a personal interest to promote vaccination, to scepticism about his communication style, too simplistic and paternalistic. Scientific research is per se probabilistic, especially when it concerns something new such as the Coronavirus. However, doubt and probability are hard to convey to the general public, who would prefer to know what is black and what is white, leaving scientific debate aside. Lastly, one might wonder if Burioni wants to provide scientific information for its own sake or if he is seeking notoriety and personal returns. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

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  1. I really enjoyed reading this piece and I learned a lot from it. I do have one question, however, about something very important that I feel needs to be addressed seriously. In the United States, one would rarely find a high ranking civil servant or politician with such a haircut. This is why our current president’s tonsorial habits are such a hot topic of discussion (among other aspects of his appearance). Is this typical of Italian leaders?

    1. Dear Thomas, thank you for your comment and for raising attention to this topic, which is absolutely up to date in the USA and in the UK. However, Burioni is not a politician and thus exempted from style requirements that characterize Italian leaders. For the moment being, we managed to be represented by an old-fashioned Italian gentleman, but who knows who will come next…

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