Patti Bacchus: Unvaccinated kids are a danger to others

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      It’s the second week of school—are your kids sick yet?

      It used to drive me crazy that just as my kids went back to school, the scratchy throats and fevers would kick in. So much for finally getting them out of the house.

      I’d keep them home to stop them from spreading viruses as their full-blown, back-to-school colds took hold, and hope that the inevitable asthma that followed wouldn’t mean weeks of missed school. Often it did. Argh.

      While there’s no vaccination to protect from colds and flus, there is one to stop kids from getting something much more serious: measles. You’d think parents would want to do everything possible to prevent their kids from getting a serious, preventable illness like measles, but in Canada, about 10 percent don’t get their kids vaccinated against this disease.

      Choosing not to vaccinate is anything but a personal, private decision. Vaccinations are about creating herd immunity, and the measles vaccine is notoriously effective and safe, in relation to the serious risks of the highly infectious disease. Deciding not to vaccinate your kids is a choice to put the others at risk, especially babies who are too young to have completed their course of vaccinations. And don’t forget people who are vulnerable due to having compromised immune systems. As if they don’t have enough to worry about without dealing with some unvaccinated kid infecting them.

      In B.C., there’s no law requiring kids to be vaccinated to attend school, unlike provinces like Ontario, which has legislation requiring children and adolescents attending school to be immunized against designated diseases, unless they qualify for an exemption for health, religious or “conscience”. New Brunswick and Manitoba also require proof of immunization to enroll in school, with limited options for exemptions.

      I get that trying to force parents to have their kids vaccinated could lead to a backlash. But with so many parents having developed a resistance to evidence-based public health measures, it may be time to ramp up the pressure—and consequences—for those who choose to ignore science and put their own kids and others at risk of an entirely preventable, serious illness.

      I’m writing this column from beautiful Mayne Island, which recently received a warning from Fraser Health that someone on an August 31 ferry from Tsawwassen to here had measles. I travelled from Vancouver to Mayne that day by ferry, but fortunately I’m old enough to have immunity through exposure. Others may have not been so lucky.

      August 31 was the Friday that kicked off the Labour Day long weekend, so it was a full boat, carrying people of all ages.

      Fraser Health warned those who were on that ferry: “A case of measles has been confirmed aboard this vessel. The case was infectious on the voyage, potentially exposing other passengers to measles. Measles is a highly infectious disease and unimmunized people are at risk. This case is related to a measles alert issued for Maple Ridge Secondary School.” 

      The group most at risk from the unvaccinated is babies who haven’t completed their course of vaccinations. And for them it can be especially serious, with lifelong effects.

      Fraser Health notes: “Measles can be a serious illness with complications such as inflammation of the brain (encephalitis), convulsions, deafness, or brain damage. Infants under one year of age and adults who have other health concerns may have more severe illness.”

      I’m not quite calling for mandatory vaccinations for kids attending publicly funded schools, but I’m close to it. What I am calling for is ramped up public education by health officials and public pressure to make people understand that choosing not to vaccinate (aside from where there is a valid medical issue) is a reckless and dangerous decision that, for heaven’s sakes, puts babies at risk.

      I remember how freaked out some parents got when head lice made the rounds in my kids’ school. Lice are icky and itchy but don’t pose a serious health risk. But there were parents who insisted on having all kids checked for lice and some who wanted those with lice sent home. That struck me as over the top, but keeping unvaccinated kids out of school does not.

      I recall the 2014 measles outbreak at Mount Cheam Christian School in Chilliwack. It’s believed to have started with two infected kids, and ended up with about 400 infected people. Some required hospitalization. CTV reported at the time that the original two infected kids’ father was the school’s principal. No, I am not making this up.

      Chilliwack is notorious for its low vaccination rates, and a health official at the time told CTV news that B.C.’s overall vaccination rates are appalling. Chilliwack is apparently home to some religious groups who believe vaccinations are harmful, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. 

      The fact that the B.C. government funds private religious schools is bad enough, but we shouldn’t be giving money to schools that don’t promote compliance with recommendations from our public health departments. Good grief, if they’re anti-vaccine, what other nonsense are they teaching kids? Nope, don’t give them my tax dollars.

      It’s time to pressure all parents to take responsibility for their kids’ health, and the health of everyone they come in contact with. Health authorities must work with school officials to make parents understand what’s a stake, and that a decision not to vaccinate is a decision to put other people—and infants—at risk.

      We need all leaders in our education system to encourage parents to heed the advice of public health officials when it comes to making sure their kids are immunized against serious, preventable diseases. 

      Smarten up people and get your shots. Get flu shots as well for you and your kids, once this year’s version is available. And don’t forget to wash your hands frequently and cough into your sleeves.

      Now if we could just get a vaccine that prevents ignorance.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.