Unvaccinated: How ‘vaccine hesitancy’ became a threat to public health
Sabrina Bacchus is a mother of two, a little boy and a baby girl, and like most parents, she wants to keep her children healthy and safe. She just doesn’t know if adhering to her province’s full immunization schedule is the best way to do that.
“I have had so many issues with chemical drugs that I was afraid that gene may have been passed on to them and that they would have reactions to (vaccines).”
WATCH: In part 2 of a special series, Heather Yourex-West looks at how we got here and why there is still such an absence of trust with immunizations.
The Toronto mother is one of a growing group of Canadian parents who are vaccine hesitant. Bacchus says she’s not against immunizations completely, she just wants to be sure that the vaccines given to her children are safe, effective and necessary.
“I want someone who is willing to work with me on all the questions I have and I have 50 million questions.”
UNVACCINATED, PART 1: Pockets of Canada vulnerable to serious outbreaks of disease
According to exclusive Ipsos polling conducted for Global News, two-thirds of parents believe vaccinations are necessary but one in three still worry about side effects and while 85 per cent of parents surveyed say they believe vaccinations are safe, 85 per cent also feel there is a lot of misinformation out there.
“The group of individuals that are the hardcore anti-vaxxers is actually relatively small. You’re looking at two to five per cent, depending on how you count it,” said Dr. Timothy Caulfield, the research director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta.
“The 20 to 30 per cent that are vaccination hesitant, I think, are being influenced by the rhetoric flowing from the hardcore anti-vaxxers.”
Anti-vaxx messages have been readily available and widely spread via social media. Facebook and YouTube have recently announced plans to crack down on anti-vaxx information on their platforms but public health agencies say they realize the damage has been done.
“Those who are spreading misinformation are absolutely brilliant at amplifying that false information using emotionally charged, media-savvy techniques,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, chief public health officer of Canada.
The Public Health Agency of Canada is now attempting to counter those messages with emotionally charged videos of their own.
Videos, like Colton’s Story, currently available on the Healthy Canadian’s facebook page, feature stories from parents whose children were harmed by vaccine-preventable disease.
“I think that it’s not just arming parents and others with information about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, it’s also teaching them media literacy, so how to spot false information or misinformation on social media platforms,” Dr. Tam said.
“I think we have a long way to go on that one.”
The spread of misinformation, though, is only part of the problem. In communities where religion or cultural practices have influenced anti-vaxx behaviour, public health officials have found the need to develop new strategies.
In southwest Alberta, where low immunization rates have contributed to 12 outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease in the last two decades, Dr. Vivien Suttorp says Alberta Health Services has had to work very hard to build trust with the local community.
“I think a big part of public health is understanding your population, understanding the social cultural aspects of your population and having general respect for everybody and their individual choices.”
Bacchus agrees that building trust is key but right now, she says, she doesn’t trust health officials will tell her the full story and plans to continue to do as much research as she can before allowing her children to have any additional immunizations.
“You shouldn’t have to be running through hoops to get this information.”
This is the second story in ‘Unvaccinated: Canada’s Public Health at Risk’, a Global News series on the challenge Canada faces from dropping vaccination rates. Wednesday: Should vaccinations be mandatory?
UNVACCINATED, Part 1: Pockets of Canada vulnerable to serious outbreaks of disease
UNVACCINATED, Part 3: Should vaccinations be mandatory for school-aged kids?
UNVACCINATED, Part 4: A former vaccination skeptic warns of online misinformation
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