Not just apathy: a short history of B.C.'s anti-vaccination movement

Vancouver’s recent measles outbreak has pushed the anti-vaccine movement to the forefront of public discussion but “vaccine hesitancy” is nothing new in British Columbia. It has a long, colourful history.

15 cases of measles have been confirmed in the Vancouver region this month

The province is rolling out a new campaign in schools to ensure more children are immunized against measles in B.C. (CBC)

Vancouver's recent measles outbreak has pushed the anti-vaccine movement to the forefront of public discussion but "vaccine hesitancy" is nothing new in British Columbia. It has a long, colourful history.

Heather MacDougall, a history professor at the University of Waterloo, has charted decades of measles immunization across Canada, including B.C., and wrote a research paper called Vaccinating in the Age of Apathy about the topic.

"In the 1970s and '80s, doctors and other public health officials assumed that it was apathy," MacDougall said.

"But in fact, I think there's always been an underlying anxiety that parents have felt."

There are 15 confirmed cases of measles in the Vancouver region. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Outbreak in Vancouver

Over the weekend, two new cases of measles were reported in Vancouver after an outbreak involving two French schools surfaced earlier this month. On Wednesday, two more cases were confirmed.

Health officials say there are now 15 confirmed cases of measles in the Vancouver region.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix urged British Columbians to check their immunization status at a news conference earlier this week.

"Frankly, people shouldn't be getting measles in the 21st century in British Columbia," Dix said.

But some of the anxiety around vaccinations from the 20th century still hasn't dissipated, said MacDougall.

"We've got to a point now where we have highly individualized parenting," she told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC's The Early Edition.  

"The parents who oppose it, or the parents who are hesitant, are often hesitant because they feel that their child would be the one in a million that has an adverse reaction."

B.C. in the '80s and '90s

Historians often point to the 1998 Wakefield study, now debunked research that erroneously linked autism with measles vaccines, as a catalyst in the anti-vaccine movement.

But in B.C., there was another component.

In the 1980s, Edda Goldman West, one of the key members in Ontario's anti-vaccination movement against legislated immunization for school children in the 1980s moved to the Slocan Valley in B.C.

"She fit right into the strong environmental movement, a strong back-to-the-land movement and, to a certain extent, the feminist opposition to medical expertise and knowledge," MacDougall said.

"She used that as the staging point for the vaccine resistance."

B.C. is aiming to make vaccine reporting mandatory by September. Proof of immunization has been a requirement for children entering schools in Ontario and New Brunswick (Ontario.ca)

The MMR [measles, mumps, rubella] vaccine, which provides immunity against measles, became a particular sticking point when B.C. launched a campaign in 1996-1997 pushing to eliminate measles.

"It's at that point that we started to see vocalization of opposition specifically to this particular vaccine," MacDougall said.

The tide is turning, however.

"Parents are now protesting vehemently ... about the fact that their children are not protected because other parents make a decision to not immunize their children," she said.

Vancouver's recent measles outbreak has pushed the anti-vaccine movement to the forefront of public discussion but "vaccine hesitancy" is nothing new in British Columbia - it has a long, colourful history. 9:04

With files from The Early Edition

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