Toronto report asks province to consider removing philosophical, religious immunization exemptions

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WATCH ABOVE: Erica Vella has more on the report that will be reviewed by Toronto's Board of Health – Sep 16, 2019

A report from Toronto’s chief medical officer is calling on the province to consider not allowing parents to seek immunization exemptions for religious or philosophical reasons in a push to address issues around vaccine hesitancy.

The Toronto Public Health report was written by Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city’s Medical Officer of Health, and it puts forward eight recommendations that will be reviewed by the Board of Health.

“Twenty per cent of Canadians are vaccine hesitant which means they have questions or concerns about vaccines,” said Dr. Vinita Dubey, associate medical officer of health with Toronto Public Health.

“The goal of the report is to start the conversation [and] to recognize that vaccine hesitancy is a relatively new thing that we are talking about and that we need to start doing things to address it.”

One of the recommendations is directed to Ontario’s health minister and it includes considering removing philosophical and religious exemptions under the Immunization of School Pupils Act and only accept medical exemptions completed by a certified health care provider.

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“We continue to see a steady rise in non-medical exemption and rather than wait for an outbreak — let’s prevent one in the first place,” said Joe Cressy, chair for the Toronto Board of Health.

Travis Kann, spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliott, said in a statement, “under the Immunization of School Pupils Act (ISPA), children are required to have proof of immunization against certain diseases to attend school in Ontario unless there is a valid medical exemption or affidavit of conscience or religious belief.”

In 2017, the ISPA was updated to include a requirement that has parents complete and education session before they can submit a request to exempt their child from immunizations for non-medical reasons.

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“Students who are unimmunized and have a valid exemption are subject to temporary exclusion from school in the event of a potential or actual disease outbreak… Currently, there are no plans to update this approach,” Kann said.

As part of the education session, Dubey said parents watching a video on the health benefits of vaccines.

“The intent on watching this video is to get informed consent for the parents but it’s not necessarily playing a role in reducing exemption rates,” Dubey said.

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The report is also asking Ad Standards Canada to revise their Canadian Code of Advertising Standards to discourage advertisements that contain false and misleading statements against vaccines and in a statement, Catherine Bate from Ad Standards said, “we’re happy to speak with the Board of Health to understand the role we can play, consistent with our mandate of truthful, fair and accurate advertising.”

The recommendations come after ads were displayed in February in prominent locations around Toronto and included messages such as, “Educate before you vaccinate,” “What are the risks?” and “How many is too many?”

The report will be going to Toronto’s Board of Health on Monday.

– With Files from The Canadian Press.

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