New Brunswick moves toward mandatory immunization for students
Legislative amendments introduced Friday would remove all non-medical exemptions
The New Brunswick government introduced legislative amendments Friday that would make medical exemptions the only acceptable reason for children in public schools and licensed early learning and child care centres not to be immunized.
Under the proposed changes, starting 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-care professional.
If they don't, they won't be allowed in and will have to go to private school or be home-schooled instead, said Dominic Cardy, minister of education and early childhood development.
"This is about our children and ensuring their safety," he said.
The amendments to the Education Act and the Public Health Act come amid a measles outbreak in the Saint John health region, where 12 cases of the highly contagious respiratory disease have been confirmed, and a whooping cough outbreak in the Fredericton health region, with 28 cases now confirmed.
"Right now, there's a very broad exemption that allows for basically anyone who just says they don't wish to have their children vaccinated," said Cardy.
But there are some children who can't be vaccinated for health reasons, such as being immunocompromised, he said.
The amendments would remove all non-medical exemptions and help protect those vulnerable children through so-called herd immunity, or community immunity, by ensuring at least 95 per cent of students are vaccinated.
Cardy hopes to see the amendments passed before the legislature breaks for the summer.
They will be debated in committee next week, but the People's Alliance already supports them, said Miramichi MLA Michelle Conroy.
"Especially now with the measles outbreak and things that are happening," she said.
"I can understand some [parents have concerns], but I worked in the medical field for years and science has shown there's no threats to the kids so I think the bigger threat is if you didn't vaccinate them."
Liberal MLA Chuck Chiasson, who represents Victoria-La Vallée, also appeared to offer tentative support on Friday.
First and foremost we have to protect our children and that would be most important to me.- Chuck Chiasson, Liberal MLA
"We have to make sure that we're respecting everybody's legal rights and everybody's charter rights," he said. "How far the bill goes towards that has yet to be seen.
"First and foremost we have to protect our children and that would be most important to me."
Megan Mitton, the Green Party MLA for Memramcook-Tantramar, said she needed to review the bill and ask some questions — "just to make sure it's the right bill."
"I do want to make sure we aren't violating anyone's human rights," she said, but she agreed with the need for herd immunity.
"We've seen stories of people who are immunocompromised and it limits their ability to live in New Brunswick and leave their houses when we don't have herd immunity and when there's a higher chance of outbreaks."
Cardy acknowledged the legislation could face legal challenges, but said he stands by mandatory vaccination.
"There's no good reason to not have your children vaccinated in 2019, just like we tell parents that they can't send peanut butter sandwiches with their kids to school because that affects people who are vulnerable," he said.
"We've seen the last little while, in the rise of epidemics of … easily preventable diseases around the world, hundreds of thousands of people dying for no reason. We're not going to be a part of that here in New Brunswick."
Mandatory staff immunizations being considered
The government also plans to look into making immunization mandatory for teachers, bus drivers and other staff, said Cardy, but that will require discussions with unions.
Although New Brunswick has a long-standing policy that requires students to either show proof of immunization or obtain an exemption for medical or parental objections, Cardy recently discovered it hasn't been consistently enforced for years.
So the province doesn't know how many unvaccinated students are in the school system.
Cardy has likened unvaccinated students to guns in schools.
"We wouldn't let a child come to school with a gun," he had told CBC News. "And a child coming to school who's able to transmit easily infectious, fatal diseases is doing just that — they're bringing something dangerous into the school environment."
With files from Jacques Poitras