Flu season is almost over for another year and Alberta Health Services says that 1.158 million doses of the flu vaccine have so far been given out province-wide, a small increase on last year’s total.
That’s welcome news to health experts who hope to see more public investment in the province’s vaccination programs. “The decline we’ve seen over the last few years has at least stopped, if not started to reverse a little bit,” says Craig Jenne, professor of microbiology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary, to CBC News, “so people are realizing there is value in getting an influenza shot in the fall.”
The 27 per cent influenza vaccination rate is still low, however, and health officials are keen to find ways to encourage more citizens to get the shot. “It’s good,” says Dr. Judy MacDonald, Calgary’s medical officer of health, “but when we look at how many Albertans have been immunized …there’s still some improvement that we’d be happy to see happen next year.”
While flu vaccination strategies are one issue, government measures to encourage more parents to get their children immunized against diseases like measles, mumps and rubella are also currently being discussed, prompted by the Edmonton Catholic School Board’s recent decision to lobby the provincial government to establish mandatory vaccinations for students in the public education system.
Trustee Marilyn Bergstra said the board’s action stemmed from a concern over a “growing trend” against vaccinating children, something they felt needs to be addressed. “As an education sector, we’re putting our children at a greater risk of contracting an unnecessary disease,” said Bergstra to the Edmonton Journal. “There’s no way to guard against it except vaccination.”
The government’s response came just a day later, however, with Health Minister Sarah Hoffman reaffirming support for new legislation passed just last November which gives public health officials the power to share immunization records with school boards to help encourage vaccination.
“Right now when there is an outbreak we have to find out what kids are in the school, and who’s had their had their immunizations and who hasn’t,” Hoffman said to the Canadian Press. “By having that information up front at the start of the year, if there is an outbreak (Public Health) would be able to inform the families that they need to keep their children at home.”
Experts say that in order to prevent outbreaks of diseases like the measles, vaccination rates need to be somewhere between 90 and 95 per cent of the population. In 2015, Alberta’s immunization rate for measles, mumps and rubella by the age of two stood at 87.1 per cent.
In Canada, only New Brunswick and Ontario have mandatory immunization requirements for students, with both provinces allowing exemptions for parents stating philosophical or religious objection to vaccination. Last year, the Canadian Medical Association came out strongly in favour of mandatory immunization for children, calling for an end to exemptions on all but medical grounds.
But the evidence is unclear on whether mandatory vaccination policies actually help to boost immunization rates, as putting forth a blanket requirement can lead to stronger parental resistance to governmental control over their children. “Mandatory vaccination actually reduces vaccination rates,” says Anna Reid, a physician from Yellowknife, to the Globe and Mail. Reid says that vaccination opponents tend to “become more rabid” and even end up withdrawing their children from school in response.