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Global vaccination awareness needs another shot in the arm

A few weeks ago, the World Health Organization expressed great concern over the low rates of childhood immunization observed in some European countries.

A few weeks ago, the World Health Organization expressed great concern over the low rates of childhood immunization observed in some European countries. Research by medical anthropologist Emily Brunson revealed that more than a quarter of European residents currently identify with the so-called anti-vaxxer movement.

The anti-vaxxer movement is composed of people – in many cases, young parents – who systematically question the safety and effectiveness of childhood immunization and reject all scientific evidence associated with it.

The origins of the movement can be traced back to a study published in the weekly medical journal The Lancet in the late 1990s, which attempted to link childhood vaccination and autism. The study’s assertions have long been debunked, but this has not stopped people from continuing to quote it as a scientific fact. 

Advances in technology have allowed the anti-vaxxer movement to establish connections all over the world. Members are usually skeptical about government actions and prone to conspiracy theories – precisely the kind of speech that can reach a wider and dedicated audience online. Health authorities all over the world have had a difficult time dealing with this problem, and the setbacks are evident.

A measles outbreak at the Disneyland Resort in California last year was widely covered by international media, yet countries like Italy have taken dramatic steps backward in the fight against childhood diseases.

The two major parties that serve in Italy’s current coalition government promised to abolish a compulsory vaccination law. As a result, children are no longer required to provide evidence of immunization in order to be enrolled in Italy’s public schools.

In Canada, the situation is not as dire as what is already developing in some European countries. But while we do not (currently) have political parties campaigning on the elimination of vaccines, there are specific pockets of the country where disinformation is palpable.

A Research Co. Canada-wide survey asked Canadians if vaccinations for children should be mandatory in their province. A staggering majority of residents (78%) agreed that this should “definitely” or “probably” be the case.

But that leaves 18% of Canadians – almost one in five – who believe parents should “probably” or “definitely” be the ones deciding whether their children should be vaccinated. A further 4% were undecided on the matter.

Quebec and British Columbia share the dubious distinction of having the largest proportion of residents who believe immunization should be up to the parents (22% and 21% respectively), followed by Alberta (18%), Ontario and Atlantic Canada (16% each) and Manitoba and Saskatchewan (15%).

A separate question asked Canadians if they think there is a correlation between the childhood vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella and autism in children – the argument originally made in the discredited study published in The Lancet.

Across the country, almost one in four Canadians (23%) said the correlation is “definitely” or “probably” real, including 25% of residents in the two most populous provinces: Ontario and Quebec. The proportion was slightly lower in British Columbia (21%), Saskatchewan and Manitoba (19%) and Atlantic Canada (also 19%).

At first glance, the numbers might not seem worrisome. Almost four in five Canadians side with scientific evidence and concur with the notion of compulsory immunization for children. But as was observed in Disneyland last year, a single unvaccinated child can cause an outbreak of massive proportions: 125 people infected, 500 more quarantined and a cost of US$2.3 million.

With almost one in five Canadians feeling that immunization is a decision that the parents should make by themselves, an outbreak could happen here. We have already had a confirmed case of measles in a Maple Ridge high school earlier this year.

The current state of affairs would suggest that Canada’s provincial health authorities should carry on with targeted information campaigns and efforts to explain to anti-vaxxers about their warped take on scientific evidence. Other countries have taken decidedly more radical measures. Australia, for instance, does not allow unvaccinated children in preschool and daycare, under the colourfully labelled “No Jab, No Play” legislation.

Childhood immunization is not one of those issues where a “vast majority” of informed Canadians will suffice. As has been observed in other countries, one outbreak is too many. •

Mario Canseco is the president of Research Co.