Does the Ontario government have the right to suspend unvaccinated students?
Just in time for World Immunization Week, Toronto health officials plan to suspend 320 more elementary school students for having incomplete immunization records.
Each year in Ontario, officials send out thousands of notices to parents and guardians alerting them of their child’s incomplete immunization records, and this year proves to be no exception with an estimated 5,000 suspension orders being sent out to elementary students within the GTA. In Ottawa, 1,800 students were suspended earlier this year during a similar immunization blitz.
“We’re going school board by school board. We’re starting with elementary schools and then we’re going to go into high schools,” says Marie-Claude Turcotte, manager of vaccine-preventable diseases at Ottawa Public Health.
Across Ontario, health officials begin their review in the fall to determine which students have incomplete vaccination records and then from December to January the warning letters are sent out to suspend unvaccinated students.
Immunization records can be out of date for a number of reasons, most often due to a missed or unreported vaccination, and in the majority of cases, records get cleared up within the first week after suspension letters are issued, as parents either update records or get their child’s vaccinations completed. “This number actually gets reduced by almost half each day as students quickly come off the overdue list,” says Angela Alfieri-Maiolo, manager of the vaccine preventable disease program for the Niagara Region public health department. Alfieri-Maiolo stated that in 2014-15 the department issued a high number of suspensions in part because provincial legislation had changed over the past year to add more vaccines onto the required list.
We have certainly not seen declining uptake rates, but we also are not seeing increases in uptake rates -and that’s the direction we would like to be going. We would like close to 95-per-cent uptake across the board.
The World Health Organization reports that immunization averts an estimated two to three million deaths every year from diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (shooping cough) and measles. During 2014, about 86 per cent (115 million) of infants worldwide received three doses of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP3) vaccine and 129 countries around the globe had reached at least 90 per cent coverage with DTP3. The WHO Global Vaccine Action Plan aims to strengthen routine vaccination in countries with vaccination rates lower than 60 per cent -these include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Uganda and South Africa.
Canada’s overall vaccination rate stands at roughly 90 per cent, with 89 per cent of children vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella, 91 per cent for polio, 77 per cent for diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus and 73 per cent for varicella (chicken pox). And while these numbers are strong, they do not meet the 95 per cent coverage determined to be necessary for herd immunity, the level of vaccination coverage at which a disease has very little chance of spreading throughout the larger society.
With the number in Canada so close, effort like those by health officials in Toronto are key to push Canada towards herd immunity. Without it, we risk the spread of diseases once thought to be contained, such as the measles and even polio.
“We have certainly not seen declining uptake rates, but we also are not seeing increases in uptake rates -and that’s the direction we would like to be going. We would like close to 95-per-cent uptake across the board,” says Dr. Monika Naus, medical director for Immunization Programs & Vaccine Preventable Diseases Service at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.