Alberta introduces new bill to increase vaccination rates for children

Alberta parents will be asked to provide immunization records for their children under proposed legislative amendments introduced Monday, but the new measures stop short of mandatory vaccinations.

New measures tighten rules for immunization disclosure by parents but stop short of mandatory vaccinations

The Alberta government has introduced a bill intended to improve childhood vaccination rates. (Johanna LeguerreAFP/Getty Images)

A new bill aims to improve vaccination rates in school children by tightening the way immunization records are collected and updated.

Alberta parents will be asked to provide immunization records for their children under proposed legislative amendments introduced Monday. But the new measures stop short of mandatory vaccinations.

For decades, legislation has allowed public health officials to tell non-immunized children to stay at home in the event of an outbreak of a communicable disease like measles or whooping cough at their school.

But the process was flawed because authorities didn't have accurate records showing which kids haven't been vaccinated. 

The amendments in Bill 28 aim to change that. Education enrolment records will be cross-referenced with immunization records held by Alberta Health to determine which children have been immunized.

The parents or guardians of children without records will be contacted by public health officials, and informed that unvaccinated students will be required to remain home during outbreaks of certain highly contagious diseases such as measles.

The government hopes the moves will help bring immunization rates to a range of 95 to 98 per cent. In 2015, 87.1 per cent of two-year-old children received their first dose of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

Dr. Karen Grimsrud, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, and Sarah Hoffman, minister of health, (right) discussed the Public Health Amendment Act at a news conference at the Alberta legislature Monday. (CBC)

The rate of immunization for chicken pox is 86.6 per cent for children of the same age.

The government suspects many children may have already been immunized but their parents just need to send their records in to Alberta Health. Parents who refuse to vaccinate their children will be counselled on the benefits of immunization and asked to sign a form if they continue to resist.

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said she hopes the vaccination holdouts will think harder about the consequences of their choice.

"I hope that they take a moment to pause and think about how important it is to their child's safety, as well as those who have medical conditions that don't allow them to be vaccinated," she said.

"That's my ultimate goal. I think we can get there through respectful dialogue, good communication and targeted outreach."

If the bill is passed, the government hopes to start collecting these records by the start of the 2017-18 school year.

Ontario and New Brunswick have mandatory vaccination policies, where parents have to provide schools with proof of immunization. However, both provinces allow for exclusions.

Liberal Leader Dr. David Swann, who has long pushed the government to take measures to improve vaccination rates, applauded the bill, saying it makes significant changes to the way immunication records are collected and updated. He said the government's decision to improve collection of records while educating parents is a better approach than taking a more aggressive stance to improve vaccine rates.

"If you really become antagonistic over this sort of a policy, you can alienate a lot of people," said Swann. "And then you'll really get a lot of pressure back from the Internet, parents who've had adverse experiences with a vaccine.

"You'll get it all inflamed into a big political process that might not serve the children's interests in the long term."