Watch the video above: To vaccinate or not to vaccinate. Angie Seth reports.
TORONTO — It’s in parts of B.C., Manitoba and Ontario. Outbreaks of measles have been reported across Canada, but why is a disease that was virtually wiped out in North America making a comeback?
Along with measles outbreaks, whooping cough, chicken pox and mumps — all preventable with vaccines — have also resurfaced in the Western world. Doctors, and their research, are pointing to one culprit: a steadily growing anti-vaccination movement.
“When people say some of this might be related to low vaccine rates among people, that’s a huge understatement,” Dr. Gerald Evans, a Queen’s University medicine professor and director of infection control at Kingston General Hospital, told Global News.
“It’s all because of vaccination rates falling. It’s 100 per cent blamed on the fact that people aren’t getting vaccinated,” Evans said.
Measles outbreaks recorded across Canada
Right now, about 228 cases of measles have popped up in B.C. In Manitoba and Alberta, handfuls of cases have been reported. And in Toronto and Ottawa, about a half a dozen illnesses have been documented. Meanwhile, the U.S. is grappling with its own outbreaks.
Evans said that it’s been decades since pockets of communities in such widespread areas have reported measles outbreaks. In Manitoba, for example, 1996 was the last time the province saw an outbreak.
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Dr. Michael Gardam suggests that other factors are also at play: advances in health technology have made it much easier and faster to diagnose so doctors are able to find more cases. The media also reports on these outbreaks.
“This is not new. This has been going on since vaccines were invented,” Gardam said. He’s the director of infection prevention and control at University Health Network.
Understanding the anti-vaxxers movement
He suggests there’s an ebb and flow to the way these diseases disappear and recur.
“I really do try to see it from both sides. When vaccines work extremely well and you have almost no disease around, it gets very hard to sell a vaccine,” Gardam said.
Vaccines come with side effects so parents may be thinking twice, especially if they haven’t been exposed to cases of measles or mumps in years. One aspect of the anti-vaccination movement is relying on herd immunity — if everyone else around you is vaccinated, why should you need the shot?
“The problem is over time, it brings back measles. These things are very cyclical where we may continue to see waning vaccination rates and then you’ll see resurgence of the disease, which will inevitably push up vaccination rates,” Gardam said.
An ‘incredibly contagious’ disease
The trouble is, these ailments are incredibly contagious. Put your son or daughter in the same room as a child with chicken pox, and he or she will probably be infected within five minutes, Gardam said.
“You wouldn’t even touch the person,” he said. “These are insanely contagious organisms. There aren’t many infectious diseases are that are truly airbourne,” he said.
But chicken pox, measles and mumps are some of these viral diseases.
Among those three, measles is most important, the doctors say. It’s highly transmissible with a high rate of complications. It starts with a cough, red, inflamed eyes and a runny nose. And within a day, its victims are covered in a rash that starts at the head right down to their toes.
The most common complications could be pneumonia, ear infection or bronchitis.
Chicken pox and mumps aren’t as deadly. In 2012, an outbreak of chicken pox spread through Indiana and was allegedly started with just one child. Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported a mumps outbreak at the University of California.
Most kids should be covered with a measles, mumps, rubella — nicknamed MMR — vaccine.
Research puts the blame on parents
Last fall, U.S. researchers at Emory University said that parents who refused to vaccinate their kids was what ultimately caused a 2010 whooping cough epidemic that swept through California. It was one of the worst cases in the west coast state since 1947, with some 10,000 illnesses and 10 deaths.
It was clusters of families that decided against vaccinating their kids that was most likely what caused the outbreak, the researchers suggested.
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Anti-vaccination movements are widespread across the United States and even in Canada. Some theories suggest there is a link between autism and vaccinating children. These allegations have been debunked, though.
After Jenny McCarthy, a celebrity mom who openly opposes vaccination, joined the talk show The View, Canada’s own Toronto Public Health urged the program to reconsider.
It released its own set of “truths” about vaccines.
Changing the way officials influence behaviour
Evans hears from concerned parents more frequently. They’re worried about what they may be hearing about vaccines.
“That makes me say to myself, ‘If my patients who make sure they’re vaccinated are asking me questions, what might be happening in the general public?’” he said.
Gardam said that health officials need to reconsider their approach. Responding to the anti-vaccination movement has typically been about educating the public. But as a group, anti-vaxxers are highly educated and highly concerned about their children’s health.
“It’s sort of paradoxical in a way. We have to be a lot more savvy about how we’re trying to influence people’s behaviour,” he told Global News.