Calgary measles cases spark vaccination discussion

After five reported cases of measles in Calgary this year, public health officials say getting vaccinated is still the best way to avoid contracting the diseases.

Warnings issued for patrons of Cibo, the National Westhills and Western Canada High School

Liberal MLA Dr. David Swann doesn't think vaccinations need to be mandatory in Alberta, but says the government could do a better job of promoting the preventative practice. (CBC)

After five reported cases of measles in Calgary this year, public health officials say getting vaccinated is still the best way to avoid contracting the disease.

Three provinces have made it compulsory to be vaccinated against diseases like measles — but Alberta isn't one of them.

The Canadian Public Health Association says even with mandatory vaccination programs, plenty of children can be exempted.

However, spokesperson Ian Culbert says governments should consider compulsory vaccinations if efforts to boost coverage fall far short of targets.

"Mandatory programs really are the last resort, just as war is the failure of diplomacy," he said. "I say a mandatory program to a certain extent is the failure of public health to be able to create that convincing argument for 95 per cent of the population to get their vaccinations."

Culbert says Albertans might be more resistant to the idea of a government-ordered vaccination program, but his group feels more should be done to promote the benefits of vaccines to protect kids against potentially deadly diseases.

There have been concerns raised about the low rate of immunization in Alberta because it is well beyond the requirements for herd immunity — meaning a larger risk of outbreak.

Alberta doctors weigh in

Dr. Judy MacDonald, the medical officer of health for Calgary, said changing that is up to the provincial government but it is not a move she supports.

“From my perspective, it's always better that people understand what the risk is of disease and make an informed choice to get vaccine rather than saying, 'They have to do this.”

Calgary Liberal MLA David Swann, who used to be a medical officer of health, agrees that's not necessary in Alberta

But Swann said the government could do a better job of promoting the benefits of vaccination to encourage more people to get the shots.

“Any child could die with measles. Any child could be critically ill or have permanent damage from measles and people need to know that the risks of the vaccine are far, far less than having the disease itself,” he said.

“I would say this government has a long way to go to properly invest in prevention, health promotion and getting the information that people need and answering the questions they have.”

That said, Swann says people should be free to decide whether to get vaccines.

Concerned students

Vaccines are a hot topic at Western Canada High School as staff, students and parents were alerted Wednesday they may have been exposed to measles.

People who were at National Westhills on March 24 and March 25 or at Cibo on 17th Avenue S.W. on March 29 and March 30 could also be at risk, said Alberta Health Services.

Restaurant patrons are being asked to monitor for symptoms, but students and teachers at Western Canada who cannot prove they have been vaccinated have been told to stay away from the school until April 21.

School officials believe 100 students and a handful of teachers are affected.

"They are not supposed to be out in the public, because they could be infectious at any time, even before they become symptomatic, thus exposing others," MacDonald told reporters Thursday.

Grade 12 students Nicole Livingston says she has been vaccinated, but she doesn't have the form to prove it. She said health officials strongly advised her to get the vaccine recently, but she declined. 

Andrew Biddell, a Grade 11 student whose sister is autistic, said his family decided to not vaccinate him when he was younger. There is debate around whether vaccinations are linked to autism, although this has been denied by Health Canada.

"I never knew it could be so contagious," he said.

Biddell said he is thinking about getting the vaccination, but he would still miss a large chunk of school because it would take at least two weeks to take effect. 

The school says students can access their homework by emailing their teachers.

With files from Scott Dippel/CBC


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