London area students suspended from school for lack of childhood diseases vaccine documentation

A health professional vaccinates a student. Markus Schreiber/ AP Photo

Rolling suspensions have started in the London, Ont., area for students without a submitted vaccination record against preventable childhood diseases.

Beginning Wednesday, the first cohort of area students was suspended for a minimum of 20 days or until documentation they had received their vaccines was submitted.

Provincial law, the Ontario Immunization of Student Pupils Act, requires Grade 1-12 students to be immunized against nine preventable diseases. If a student’s full immunization or a valid exemption is not recorded, the local health has the authority to issue school suspensions.

Middlesex-London Health Unit medical officer of health Dr. Alex Summers says the suspensions are a way to prevent contagious childhood diseases from spreading if an outbreak were to occur.

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“We know that outbreaks of these vaccine-preventable diseases can keep kids out of school and that’s what we are trying to prevent here,” said Summers.

The diseases students must be immunized against are diphtheria, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, meningococcal disease and whooping cough. Kids born in 2010 or later are also required to have the chickenpox shot.

Click to play video: 'Routine childhood vaccinations drop during pandemic'
Routine childhood vaccinations drop during pandemic

Uptake in the vaccines is down significantly from the last full non-COVID-19 school year.

Compared to the 2018-19 school year, compliance among seven-year-old students is down between two and 49 per cent depending on the vaccine. Among 17-year-olds, the rate has decreased between one and 45 per cent, depending on the vaccine.

Summers says it is important to note those figures do not necessarily represent the number of students missing a required shot but rather the number without submitted records.

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The top doctor added the COVID-19 pandemic has been a barrier in numerous ways, not only in getting children vaccinated but also in having parents report vaccinations so records are up to date.

The health unit has spent the past year seeking vaccination record updates, sending out roughly 42,000 letters to parents and guardians last school year. Catch-up clinics were run throughout the summer to give children the opportunity to get immunized if they were behind.

After sending out a second round of letters in the fall, the health unit began issuing suspension notices in December. The suspensions will be issued to different cohorts between January and June, with a one-month advanced notice to give time to submit documentation.

“In most instances, we avoid the need to suspend,” said Summers, adding that while 3,500 suspension notices were issued last month, at the end of Thursday only 500 students remained out of school as 3,000 had since submitted proper documentation.

A permanent change in policy for the region will be that instead of only select grades being screened for immunization records, all students will be checked for documentation.

While the gap in immunization rates for preventable diseases is being blamed on the barriers the pandemic created, Summers says it is too early to tell if growing anti-vaccination sentiment will affect the immunization of students.

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“We’re certainly mindful that attitudes towards vaccination are something we really need to monitor closely,” said Summers.

“Vaccination is one of the important public health tools that we have, and we have to make sure that people are confident in the safety effectiveness of these tools.”

Summers says Middlesex-London is one of the first health units in the province to restart the suspensions for students lacking documentation.

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