Measles outbreaks in Vancouver, Washington State and elsewhere have raised concerns on Vancouver Island that some parents are still failing to immunize their children against a series of preventable, serious diseases.
It’s a situation that has one Sooke school district trustee and an Island Health official suggesting that vaccine education should be considered in locals schools.
“What we could be doing is educating children about vaccines, and why they’re important. I think we’ve lost the cultural memory of why these vaccines are important and how they have prevented serious, sometimes fatal diseases from continuing,” said school trustee Margot Swinburnson, a retired nurse.
That’s a position supported by Dr. Dee Hoyano, Island Health medical officer.
“I would love to see it (education about vaccines) in our school programs so that, when those children grow up and become parents themselves, they can make the right choices,” Hoyano said.
Hoyano said the reason some parents don’t vaccinate their children is complex.
“There are a combination of reasons. For a portion of the population, there is still the willingness to believe some very bad and false information (regarding vaccinations). We need to get the message out that vaccines are not dangerous and could save your life,” she said.
“Then there are the parents who just don’t make it a priority, even though they may not be against vaccinations.”
The problem, said Hoyano, is that when a portion of the population fails to immunize their children, the percentage of the population that is protected drops and a phenomenon known as “herd immunity” stops being effective.
That means that those children who cannot be immunized due to some medical conditions such as immunodepression are placed at higher risk of infection from their uninoculated classmates.
In order for herd immunity to be effective, the vaccination rates need to be above 92 percent, said Hoyano. Lower Vancouver Island is at about 88 percent and that percentage has dropped steadily since 2013.
It’s a difficult conundrum for public health nursing coordinator Catharine Berghuis.
“We have lots of opportunities to interact with these people and sometimes they are making decisions that we wouldn’t make but we want to maintain contact with them. If we pressure them too much they just stay away and we’ve lost our chance to educate them, so we try to do what we can without making them feel judged,” Berghuis said.
She explained that one of the initiatives taken by the public health nurses is to automatically make the three-month medical appointments (and subsequent appointments) for new moms, as opposed to waiting for the parents to make the appointments.
“Some people still decline to have their baby inoculated at that time, but at least we have a chance to speak to them and the baby won’t go un-vaccinated because the parents got busy and just didn’t make the appointment.”
Public health nurses should be doing a better job of delivering the vaccination message, Swinburnson said.
“This relates to the under funding of public health nurses over the past 20 years. We need to put the money back in that service so that those contacts are more consistent and the relationships stronger,” said Swinburnson.
When asked about the concept of making vaccinations a mandatory prerequisite for school attendance, however, Swinburnson maintained that it wasn’t within the bailiwick of the school district.
“All we accomplish with that is perhaps creating a community of people who withdraw their children from school to home-school. Do we want that?”
She added that, under current legislation, the school districts do not have the right to demand vaccinations.
This month has seen an outbreak of measles in Vancouver and in Washington State, where a state of emergency has been declared, 32 cases of measles were reported in January.