New Brunswick

'Marissa the Fierce' backs N.B.'s move to mandatory vaccinations

Marissa Gootjes, 15, who is immunocompromised after undergoing chemotherapy for brain cancer, says she hopes legislative amendments to make vaccinations mandatory for New Brunswick students pass to help protect other people like her.

Marissa Gootjes, 15, has to miss end of school year at KVHS because of measles outbreak in Saint John region

'Marissa the Fierce' Gootjes, who earned her nickname playing hockey, has been sidelined by the measles outbreak for the rest of the school year because she is immunocompromised from undergoing chemotherapy. (Submitted by Jan Gootjes)

Marissa Gootjes is finally out of quarantine.

The 15-year-old girl is allowed to leave her Quispamsis home, but she still can't go places where there are large groups of people, especially anywhere that's had a confirmed cases of measles in the ongoing outbreak in the Saint John health region.

That means the Grade 10 student, who has already been stuck at home for nearly a month, has to miss the remainder of the school year at Kennebecasis Valley High School, where nine of the 12 cases of the highly contagious respiratory disease are based.

Health officials say her risk of contracting the virus that's spread through the air or by direct contact is too high after chemotherapy for brain cancer wiped out her lifetime of vaccinations and left her with the immunity of a newborn.

"It kinda sucks because I don't get to see any of my friends," or take part in any of the year-end school activities, said Marissa.

"And also, I already was [behind from being absent 18 months for surgery and treatments], but I'm going to be even more behind on all my classes, so I might have to do even more work at the start of next year."

It feels unfair, she said.

Mandatory vaccines 'a really good idea'

Legislative amendments introduced by the New Brunswick government last Friday, to make immunization mandatory for children in public schools and daycares unless they have a medical exemption, come too late for Marissa.

But she's "pretty happy" about the proposed changes to the Education Act and the Public Health Act.

"I think it's a really good idea," she said. "Because there's some people who, like me, they can't get their vaccinations and I don't know, I just wish I could and that way I don't have to worry about everybody else getting their shots."

"I think if everyone had gotten the shots in the first place there'd be a lot less of a chance measles would have spread to KVHS."

Would take effect by 2021

If the amendments pass, starting on Sept. 1, 2021, all existing and new students would have to either provide proof they're immunized against various diseases, such as measles and whooping cough, or provide a medical exemption form signed by a health professional.

Otherwise they won't be allowed in and will have to go to private school or be home-schooled instead, Education Minister Dominic Cardy has said.

Under the current legislation, parents can sign a form refusing to have their children vaccinated based on personal "objections."

The amendments would remove all non-medical exemptions and help protect vulnerable children like Marissa through so-called herd immunity, or community immunity, by ensuring at least 95 per cent of students are vaccinated, said Cardy.

Education Minister Dominic Cardy has previously likened unvaccinated students to guns in schools. (CBC)

Marissa's mother, Jan Gootjes, hopes the changes go through.

"This [measles] outbreak I think has kind of really brought to the forefront that, you know, these diseases that we thought were eradicated from our population can come back if we don't have that herd immunity in place and there are children like my daughter who are vulnerable because of their immune systems and can't be vaccinated," she said.

"So as a society, I think we need to make sure that those children are protected the same as, you know, we don't bring peanut and nut products into schools because there are children who have allergies to that, and just because you don't have an allergy doesn't mean that you should be exposing vulnerable people to it."

The mother of three said she used to have a "live and let live philosophy" about immunization — until Marissa got sick and became immunocompromised.

Part of living in a community and in a society is doing things for the greater good.- Jan Gootjes, mother

"So of course now I have a much stronger opinion on it."

Marissa has been brave and stoic throughout, living up to her Kennebecasis Valley Minor Hockey Association's Bantam Senators nickname, Marissa the Fierce.

"She's just sort of rolled with it. She's remarkable really. She just kind of says. 'Well, it is what it is.'"

But when her health-care team told her last week she couldn't go back to school, she was disappointed, said Gootjes.

Luckily, it's almost the end of the school year, with the last day of classes on June 21, she said, because with each new confirmed case, Marissa would have to miss another 42 days — approximately two incubation cycles of the disease — to be safe.

More cases expected

The most recent case was announced on June 1. The infected individual at Hampton High is linked to the previous KVHS cases, health officials have said. The other two are related to the Saint John Regional Hospital's emergency department.

The outbreak began on April 26 with an individual who had recently travelled to Europe and visited the ER before being diagnosed.

Public Health officials have said they expect to see more cases because more than 2,000 people have potentially been exposed.

"There's really vulnerable kids out there who deserve to be safe at school," said Gootjes. "Part of living in a community and in a society is doing things for the greater good."

"Even if you don't think your kid or you need to take the shot, there's other people that need you to take it so that they don't get sick," Marissa said.

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