Vaccination 'can't be optional,' Higgs says amid measles outbreak
Comments come as 9th case of highly contagious vaccine-preventable disease is confirmed in Saint John area
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs says vaccination "can't be optional" and that more public education about immunization is needed.
"Many parents have made a choice not to vaccinate their kids and I think whether it be in a daycare, in the school system, that this has to be something that we look at — that it can't be optional," Higgs told reporters Tuesday, shortly after public health announced a ninth confirmed case of measles.
The latest case of the highly contagious respiratory disease is linked to one of seven other previously confirmed cases at Kennebecasis Valley High School in Quispamsis.
At some point you look at the risk and you've got to make a decision.- Blaine Higgs, premier
Measles is transmitted through the air or by direct contact with an infected individual.
"In a public system where others are at risk, there are protective measures that are well-proven and we have to see that people use them."
New Brunswick does have a policy requiring students to prove they are immunized against several diseases, including measles and whooping cough, before they enter the school system.
The aim of Policy 706 is to "minimize the risk that an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease will occur" and to make sure students are protected if such an outbreak happens.
Students can be granted exemptions for medical reasons with a form signed by a doctor, or for "parental objection" if the parent signs a form acknowledging their child can be excluded from daycare or school in the event of an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease.
The current vaccination rates among students are unclear because Education Minister Dominic Cardy recently discovered the policy hasn't been enforced "for a very long time." The seven school districts haven't been collecting the entry data, "despite the fact that it's mandated," Cardy has said.
"At some point you look at the risk and you've got to make a decision," said Higgs. "And that's where we are right now, I think, with the protection of the measles and that's maybe where we are with others who just say, 'I don't want to be vaccinated.'"
Maine to end opt-outs
Neighbouring Maine, which is dealing with its first case of measles since 2017 and whooping cough outbreaks, plans to end non-medical vaccination opt-outs in September 2021.
Last week, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills signed into law, a bill that eliminates religious and philosophical exemptions.
Higgs said he doesn't know whether mandatory vaccinations could breach the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but he intends to look into the matter.
"We've always talked about health being a priority, so we have to weigh the pros and cons … how do we make it a priority and protect everyone?"
The government will consult with medical professionals about how to minimize the risks to students and staff, he said. "And we need to follow some rules around that."
Outbreak a 'crisis'
Liberal Edmundston-Madawaska-Centre MLA Jean-Claude D'Amours described the measles outbreak as "a crisis."
He called on the premier Tuesday to call Health Minister Ted Flemming back from vacation.
"We are really walking on thin ice right now. We are facing a crisis," he told reporters.
Higgs said Flemming will be back on Thursday. In the meantime, the government is dealing with the outbreak, he said.
"I'm very comfortable right now that we have it in hand."
Health officials have said they expect the number of cases to continue to climb.
"This is really serious," said D'Amours.
The province's chief medical officer, Dr. Jennifer Russell, said she's "very concerned."
"We are putting all of the resources we can into this issue," tracking down people who may have been exposed to a confirmed case and protecting those at risk, she said.
"Pretty much everybody" in public health in the Saint John region is working on the outbreak and additional resources are being brought in from other regions as relief, said Russell.
"In this type of a setting, to sustain that kind of workload and that effort, you have to rotate people in."
Measles symptoms, which usually begin within eight to 12 days after infection, may include fever, cough, runny nose, red or sore eyes, sleepiness, irritability and tiny white spots in the mouth.
Within three to seven days, the telltale red blotchy rash usually develops on the face and then spreads to the rest of the body.
Anyone who is exhibiting symptoms and decides to seek medical attention should call ahead before visiting their doctor's office, a clinic or emergency room so proper measures can be put into place to prevent the possible spread to others, officials have said.
Measles can be more severe in adults and infants. Complications can include ear infections, pneumonia, blindness and swelling of the brain, which can cause seizures, deafness, brain damage or death. If contracted during pregnancy, it can cause miscarriage, premature labour, and low birth weight.
Most people are protected from measles with two doses of the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine.
People born before 1970 are considered immune.
The first confirmed case of measles in the region, announced on April 26, was an individual who had recently travelled to Europe and visited the Saint John Regional Hospital's emergency department before being diagnosed.