At last, Ontario will make life a little more difficult for anti-vaxxer parents

Posted on January 14, 2016 in Health Policy Context – Full Comment
January 13, 2016.   Robyn Urback

Until now, it has been relatively easy for Ontario parents to choose not to vaccinate their children and still send them to school. In Canada, only New Brunswick and Ontario require “proof” of vaccination for kids to be allowed to attend public schools, though this supposed requirement can be easily circumvented if parents fill out an exemption form citing medical, religious or “conscience” objections. It is no more complicated than filling out a driver’s license application.

The reasoning behind the decision to deny their children these potentially life-saving vaccinations is evidently unimportant, at least to the Ministry of Education. Indeed, parents could still believe in the thoroughly debunked association between autism and the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, or in the notion that vaccines contain cells from aborted fetuses, or perhaps they simply can’t be bothered to adhere to a regular vaccine schedule. Doesn’t matter. As long as they supply the school with a signed exemption form, their child can keep attending classes.

That could change, however, by the time the 2016-2017 school year rolls around. In December, the Ontario government proposed an amendment to the Immunization of School Pupils Act that would mean that parents seeking non-medical exemptions for their children would be required to attend an information session held by their local public health unit. Parents could still file an exemption after attending the session, but the process will no longer be as simple as checking a box and signing on the line.

While the notion that parents will have to subject themselves to state-approved mass messaging makes me a little bit uncomfortable, the overall idea is nevertheless a good one: so long as parents are determined to flout the risks associated with not inoculating their children, they might as well be informed about what, exactly, those risks are.

The hope is that with a little education, parents will think twice about the nonsense they might have read on blogs or alternative news sites. Unfortunately, that nonsense has found quite a following over the last decade — helped along by celebrity endorsements from people like Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey and Alicia Silverstone — to the extent that diseases once thought to be nearly eradicated in the developed world are making a comeback. In 2015, for example, outbreaks of measles, mumps and whooping cough were recorded throughout Canada and the United States on a scale that hasn’t been seen for the last 20 years.

The C.D. Howe institute released a report last year indicating that Ontario was falling short of the 85 to 97 per cent vaccination threshold needed to ensure herd immunity in its communities. The report’s authors noted that “how information about immunization is provided … is critical, as clear messages can make a large difference to immunization coverage,” and suggested that “public health bodies and healthcare providers focus on delivering information about the benefits and risks of vaccinations to support decision making, especially for vaccine-hesitant parents.” It seems as though the Ontario government has taken precisely that advice.

That said, for now, thousands of Ontario are still at risk of being suspended from school until they get their immunization records up to date (or complete exception forms). As of last week, approximately 1,800 students had already been suspended in Ottawa alone, with many more at risk of exclusion throughout the province. Public Health Ontario could not say exactly how many additional students are facing suspension, however, since the information is collected by local health authorities and not consolidated by a central agency. The Ministry of Health says it hopes to remedy that as part of its five-year plan for renewal of its immunization program, along with launching its information sessions for parents. Here’s hoping these steps lead to better informed parents, fewer classroom absences and healthier kids.

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