A CBC Marketplace investigation has found that some alternative health practitioners are offering unproven vaccine "alternatives" to parents, which is adding to many parents’ confusion about vaccines. These treatments are not approved by Health Canada as alternatives to immunization.

Marketplace visited homeopathic practitioners in Toronto and Vancouver to investigate what advice and other options parents were being given about vaccines.

  • Watch the complete Marketplace investigation, Shot of Confusion, Friday Nov. 28 at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. NT) on CBC Television.

Many myths about vaccines are perpetuated by celebrities and websites that continue to promote discredited and inaccurate research.

Some of the homeopathic practitioners that Marketplace visited offered treatments, called "nosodes," as vaccine alternatives, telling parents that the treatment is as effective as vaccines against diseases such as measles, polio and pertussis (whooping cough), which is highly contagious and can be fatal for infants.

Nosodes are made when diseased tissue or excretions are diluted to the point where any trace of the original substance may not be present. Homeopathic practitioners argue that the memory of the original substance is enough to create immunity. Public health groups have been critical of this approach.

Shannon MacDonald

"These diseases are the thing to be afraid of, and the vaccines are just by and far the safest option," says Shannon MacDonald, a registered nurse and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Alberta who researches vaccine trends. (CBC)

Some homeopathic practitioners also downplayed the severity of communicable diseases like measles, which are preventable by vaccination. Measles can result, in severe cases, in brain damage and death, and kill approximately one in 1,000 children worldwide who contract the disease.

Several said the likelihood of contracting these diseases was slim.

But while vaccine-preventable diseases like measles remain uncommon in Canada, a warning by the Public Health Agency of Canada from earlier this year warned of an unusually high number of cases, with outbreaks reported in five provinces.

"I think it’s frightening," Shannon MacDonald, a registered nurse and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Alberta who researches vaccine trends, told Marketplace co-host Erica Johnson.

"If the herd immunity level drops and these diseases are introduced into the community, those children are not protected," MacDonald says. "You have well-meaning parents who’ve been provided an option, which they’ve been told that it’s going to protect their children. And it’s a lie."

Vaccine alternatives unproven

hi-needle-medicine-health

While vaccines are safe and effective at preventing a range of serious diseases, myths about risks persist. (CBC)

The homeopathic practitioners in the Marketplace investigation were selling alternative vaccine treatments for between $16 for a single bottle and $200 for a complete course of treatment covering multiple diseases.

In consultations documented on hidden camera, some said the efficacy of nosodes was equivalent to vaccines, with several telling parents that the treatments were more than 90 per cent effective.

None of the homeopathic practitioners in the Marketplace investigation agreed to be interviewed for the story. Some said they are simply providing information, and it is up to parents to decide whether or not to vaccinate their children.

While no regulations prohibit homeopathic practitioners from offering health advice or alternative remedies, nosodes are not approved by Health Canada as vaccine alternatives, and medical experts say that there is no scientific proof that they are effective.

In a letter to the Toronto Star from 2013, Adam Gibson, Director General of Health Canada’s Natural Health Products Directorate, wrote that nosodes are not authorized replacements for vaccines. "Both Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada continue to promote and actively support vaccination of Canadians to protect them from vaccine-preventable illness."

Baby

Diseases that we have vaccines for, including measles and pertussis (whooping cough) can be deadly. According to the World Health Organisation, measles is one of the leading causes of death, globally, among young children. (CBC)

Health Canada now requires that manufactured homeopathic products contain a warning label that makes it clear that nosodes are not considered alternatives to vaccination.

But Marketplace discovered that Health Canada doesn’t require homeopaths to make a similar disclosure when the product is prepared specifically for a patient.

‘Terribly irresponsible’

While Canada does not have a tracking system that gives an accurate picture of vaccination rates across the country, local and provincial statistics suggest that in some parts of Canada the number of children who are not up to date on their shots is rising.

In some communities, more than 40 per cent of seven-year-old children do not have all their shots.

Part of the reason seems to be that common myths about vaccine safety persist, and many parents remain fearful.

"It’s very concerning. People are turning to these alternative health-care practitioners for advice, and if the practitioners are not actually trained to know the science behind vaccines, they shouldn’t be providing any advice to parents on it. It’s not their area of specialty," says MacDonald.

"It’s terribly irresponsible."

Part of the issue, she says, is that vaccines have been effective at preventing serious diseases such as polio, and many Canadians don’t have firsthand knowledge of the dangers the diseases pose.

"I have worked overseas and in intensive care with children so I have a very real image of what the outcomes of these diseases can be," says MacDonald.

"These diseases are the thing to be afraid of, and the vaccines are just by and far the safest option."