British Columbia

Doctors report uptick in teens, young adults choosing to vaccinate against parents' wishes

Vancouver doctors are seeing an uptick in the number of unvaccinated teens and young adults seeking to be inoculated against measles in the wake of an outbreak of the disease at two schools in the city.

'I don't think it's too late ever to get your measles immunization up to date,' public health official says

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, says the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) shot is not only safe, but it's one of the most effective vaccines doctors have for preventing disease. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Vancouver doctors are seeing an uptick in the number of unvaccinated teens and young adults seeking to be inoculated against measles in the wake of an outbreak of the disease at two schools in the city.

Dr. Eric Cadesky, a family physician and president of Doctors of B.C., said he's seen a number of young patients recently who made appointments to get the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine over concerns about the outbreak.

"Some of them said their parents were against vaccination because of unreliable sources of information that they received," Cadesky said. "Others had been hesitant [to be inoculated] because of pressure from peer groups."

Cadesky said every physician in his practice has noticed a jump in young people asking to get immunized, and he's heard similar stories from a number of other doctors elsewhere in the province and beyond.

"I've heard of people throughout Canada and even doctors around the world saying that millennials are using these outbreaks as an opportunity to revisit the decision that their parents had made for them," he said.

"And many are making a different decision, which is to protect themselves and also, in many cases, that means protecting the people around them, because not everyone can receive the vaccine."

Students at Surrey’s Senator Reid Elementary answer quiz questions on the Kids Boost Immunity website, a resource that educates children about the importance of immunization. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

'Moral obligation'

Among the patients Cadesky inoculated is Maddi Bisset, who had no vaccinations as a child because her mother believed young children shouldn't be "pumped full of chemicals."

"She preferred more 'natural' alternatives, including homeopathy and essential oils," the 23-year-old said in an email interview Wednesday.

"Everything my mother did was with our best interests in mind. I just believe she put too much faith into false articles she found online and did not consider what heavy repercussions not vaccinating your child has on both their health, the public's health and the possible life-threatening situations it puts at-risk people in.

"With the frightening resurgence of measles in Vancouver, it wasn't a choice anymore, it was a moral obligation to public safety," Bisset said of her decision to get immunized.

Vancouver outbreak

So far, nine cases of measles have been confirmed at the two French-language schools in Vancouver, a cluster that began after an unvaccinated B.C. child contracted the disease during a family trip to Vietnam, where the highly contagious disease is endemic.

Complications from the disease include ear infections that can lead to deafness, blindness, pneumonia and encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain.

Measles, which is spread through airborne droplets after an infected person coughs or sneezes, can also be a killer. The World Health Organization says there were 110,000 deaths from measles globally in 2017, most of them children under age five.

While measles was declared officially eliminated in Canada in 1998, cases imported by travellers can cause sporadic outbreaks like the one now occurring in Vancouver, seeding the disease within the community and putting those without immunity at risk.

A 1998 U.K. study that suggested the MMR vaccine was linked to autism in children has long been discredited, but still influences people in choosing not to vaccinate. (Lukas Schulze/dpa/Associated Press)

Some people — infants, people with certain underlying health conditions and those undergoing chemotherapy — cannot be vaccinated and must rely on "herd" immunity to prevent infection. Others at risk are those who choose not to be immunized, often based on a long-discredited 1998 U.K. study that suggested the MMR vaccine was linked to autism in children.

'Safe and effective'

Cadesky said young patients like Bisset are often exposed to ideas and beliefs among their peers that differ from those of their parents, causing them to look for validated information, "and they're correctly concluding that vaccination is safe and effective."

Bisset agreed, saying her friends are all vaccinated and are pro-immunization.

"I think youth have adapted along with the internet and have a better sense of which sources are reliable, and with so much information there now, can compare information easily," she said.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said the MMR shot is not only safe, but it's one of the most effective vaccines doctors have for preventing disease.

"If someone is questioning whether to get vaccinated or not ... it's a really good idea now to go in and talk to your health provider if you have questions and get them answered and get yourself vaccinated," Tam said. "I don't think it's too late ever to get your measles immunization up to date."

That's especially advisable for anyone planning to travel during the upcoming March break to countries where the disease is poorly controlled, she said. Measles remains a common affliction in many areas of the world, including in parts of Europe, Asia, the Pacific and Africa.

The U.S. is also experiencing travel-related outbreaks, with 127 cases of measles confirmed in 10 states between Jan. 1 and Feb. 14, with Washington and New York states particularly hard hit by the disease, says a report by the Centers for Disease Control.

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