The Alberta government is saying no to mandatory vaccinations just one day after the Edmonton Catholic Schools board decided to urge the province to consider it.
Education Minister David Eggen says he is confident in the legislation currently in place.
“I think that our policy is probably reasonable and strong and we don’t want to expel kids because their parents aren’t vaccinating them.”
Last year, the NDP introduced a law that would allow public health officials to share information with school boards when it comes to which students are vaccinated and for what.
“If there is an outbreak, they’ll be able to inform families that they need to keep their children at home and ideally, what will happen is, there’s opportunities for increased education, awareness and immunizations,” Health Minister Sarah Hoffman explained.
The debate on vaccinations was stirred up Tuesday night, when Catholic School board trustee Marilyn Bergstra put forward a motion to urge the government to make vaccinations mandatory for students in publicly-funded schools.
A shortened version of the motion was unanimously approved by the board.
Bergstra is working on her master’s degree in public health and developed the motion in response to the growing anti-vaccination movement.
“We’re seeing non-legitimate claims being made in a very professional-looking manner. They create websites – it all looks well-documented, none of it has any validity,” she said.
Timothy Caulfield is the Canada Research Chair in health, law and policy at the University of Alberta.
He admits vaccinations are a controversial issue.
“There are individual rights to consider: the right to do what you want with your body and with your kids’ interests. But at the same time, there’s public health ethics to consider. The idea of keeping the entire population healthy,” he said.
Caulfield said the science doesn’t lie: “The evidence tells us that vaccination is effective. Not vaccinating your kids – there’s evidence to show this – it does lead to more outbreaks.”
He believes governments could have an important role to play when it comes to protecting children who cannot be immunized for medical reasons.
“I think for policymakers it can be so tough because you’ll get some very strong voices on the other side. But I think we need to stick with the science, we need to stick with the facts and we’ve got to go with a policy that benefits the most.”
There is already mandatory vaccination legislation in Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick – and lessons to be learned from them – Caulfield said.
If the goal is to increase vaccinations, he believes having an opt-out clause for non-medical exemptions could be detrimental.
Hoffman said from her perspective, the new information-sharing legislation on vaccines will provide a chance to remind parents of shots that should be administered.
“We want to use education as an opportunity to inform parents. Sometimes parents aren’t even aware that their immunizations aren’t up to date.”
So while for now the answer is no, Caulfield believes the debate will come up again.
“I think we’re going to see more and more of this when you have outbreaks of mumps and measles and concerns that we don’t have enough vaccinations to achieve herd immunity.”