New Brunswick·Video

MLAs struggle with how to vote on mandatory vaccination for students bill

New Brunswick MLAs got a dose of scientific expertise Thursday as they held a final day of hearings into a proposed vaccination law.

Law amendments committee hears from New Brunswick Pharmacists' Association on final day of hearings

Sussex-Fundy-St. Martins Progressive Conservative MLA Bruce Northrup said he is struggling with the contentious issue. (CBC)

New Brunswick MLAs got a dose of scientific expertise Thursday as they held a final day of hearings into a proposed vaccination law.

The province's pharmacists testified in support of the bill and rebutted the testimony of several anti-vaccination witnesses who appeared earlier in the hearings.

But several members of the law amendments committee studying the bill said they were still not persuaded to vote for it.

"I struggle with telling my neighbours, telling my friends what they should be doing with their children," said Bruce Northrup, the Progressive Conservative member for  Sussex-Fundy-St. Martins.

Emotions get to him

He said he had been moved by the emotional, anecdotal testimony of several witnesses who said their children's illnesses were caused by vaccines.

"I've been an MLA for 13 years and this is probably the biggest struggle I've had, personally," he said.

Northrup said he would recommend to the PC caucus that its members be allowed a free vote on the legislation.

Education Minister Dominic Cardy's bill would eliminate non-medical exemptions for children whose parents choose to not have them vaccinated. Those children would not be allowed to attend public schools and would have to resort to private schools or home schooling.

After three days of hearings, some members of the law amendments committee studying a proposed vaccination law say they don’t yet know how they’ll vote. 1:36

A large number of anti-vaccination activists and parents appeared over the three days of hearings to oppose the bill, and their objections have dominated the sessions.

But the overwhelming weight of studies by public health agencies "have clearly indicated that vaccines are safe and effective," said Brett Jackson, secretary-treasurer of the New Brunswick Pharmacists' Association.

Brett Jackson, New Brunswick Pharmacists' Association secretary-treasurer, told the committee Thursday that the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the potential risks. (New Brunswick Pharmacists' Association)

While they are "not without some risk … the benefits of a vaccination schedule far outweigh the risk profile associated with them," he told the committee.

Cardy said it's vital to maintain a 95 per cent vaccination rate among schoolchildren because that creates a "herd immunity" that prevents the spread of diseases to a small number of children who can't be vaccinated for legitimate medical reasons.

Some opponents of the bill have presented unsubstantiated theories about the risks of vaccines.

Jackson responded to those claims on Thursday morning, saying levels of aluminum in vaccines — cited by several witnesses — is "a very trace amount."

He said pharmacists are aware of the ingredients in medications they prescribe, and he's seen no evidence that vaccines contain, as some opponents claim, tissue from human fetuses.

"I'm not aware of that component in vaccines to my knowledge," he said.

'Some science on both sides'

After the pharmacists' appearance, several MLAs told CBC News they remain unsure how they will vote.

Moncton South Liberal MLA Cathy Rogers said she was unsure how to balance the scientific expertise against the emotional personal testimony of several anti-vaccination parents.

"Science is always evolving and we learn to be informed by science, by ongoing data, and lived experience does [become part of] scientific data," she said.

Rogers said she doesn't question the effectiveness of vaccines, but there is "growing, current research" supporting the idea that they can be harmful.

"The research is inconclusive. I would say that," she said. "There is some science on both sides."

Committee chair and Justice Minister Andrea Anderson-Mason, a member of the PC cabinet that approved the legislation, said she would wait to hear more testimony before deciding her position.

Rick DeSaulniers of the People's Alliance, which the PC minority government relies on for support in passing legislation, also said he was "struggling" with how to balance what he had heard over the three days.

"I've heard a lot of statistics but I've also heard a lot of compassionate, and I believe very honest, testimony of some of the effects that people have experienced with regards to vaccinations," said the Fredericton-York MLA.

He questioned the logic of Cardy's herd immunity argument because there are incomplete records of vaccination rates in New Brunswick schools.

"There's a lack of data. We don't know exactly where we are at."

Disputes profit motive

During the hearing, DeSaulniers accused the pharmacists of being motivated by the potential financial gain of more vaccinations. But Jackson said they're not allowed to vaccinate children younger than five years old, so children covered by the law would be getting shots elsewhere. 

Memramcook-Tantramar Green MLA Megan Mitton said she was also not sure if the committee has enough data on immunization rates to force parents to vaccinate.

Other MLAs on the committee were more favourable. Moncton Centre Liberal MLA Rob McKee said his own father suffered from polio because he was born before a vaccine was developed.

One out of every 11 kindergarteners in New Brunswick last year provided no record of having received any measles vaccines, figures obtained by CBC News show. (Canadian Press)

He also cited several reputable studies he found online contradicting the anti-vaccination activists.

And Saint John East PC MLA Glen Savoie, who said Wednesday that the committee process had given anti-vaccination activists too much of an unfiltered platform, said he will vote for Cardy's legislation.

"I'm in support of the bill," he said. "It's a government bill."

The committee MLAs will likely meet at a later date to debate what to say in the report they'll write and forward to the legislature before a final vote on the bill.

The house as a whole can adopt, amend or defeat the bill, regardless of what the committee recommends.

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