New Brunswick

Education minister likens unvaccinated students to guns in schools

Education Minister Dominic Cardy says any students who don't meet immunization requirements this fall won't be allowed through the school doors unless and until they do.

Dominic Cardy vows to crack down on immunizations this fall, barring unvaccinated students for public safety

Education Minister Dominic Cardy says New Brunswick was a leader in immunization as one of only two jurisdictions in Canada with rules requiring children to show proof of vaccination or exemption before entering the school system. Now he wants to see those rules enforced and 'tightened up.' (Gilles Landry/Radio-Canada)

Education Minister Dominic Cardy says any students who don't meet immunization requirements this fall won't be allowed through the school doors unless and until they do.

Cardy isn't just talking about excluding students during an outbreak like the ongoing one in the Saint John area, where 11 cases of measles have been confirmed, nine of which are linked to Kennebecasis Valley High School in Quispamsis. He means barring them from attending school entirely.

"We wouldn't let a child come to school with a gun," he said. "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," he said.

"Certainly, my expectation is that starting in September every child going into a New Brunswick school be there with their vaccine cards to prove that they are not a risk to themselves or others in the school system."

New Brunswick has a long-standing policy that requires students to either show proof they are immunized against measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, polio, pertussis (whooping cough), varicella (chicken pox) and meningococcal disease, or obtain an exemption for medical or parental objections.

But it hasn't been consistently enforced for years, so the province doesn't know how many unvaccinated students are in the school system.

Cardy intends to change that.

"They will be excluded from school if they are unwilling to follow the rules around health and safety," he said, adding he will give people "a reasonable amount of time" to comply once public health resources aren't stretched so thin dealing with the measles outbreak.

Personal exemption provision too broad

He also plans to "tighten up" the personal exemption provision of Policy 706, which he describes as too broad.

As it stands, parents can "just say,' I don't want to have my kids vaccinated,'" he said. "I don't think that's good enough.

"I am unaware of any faith tradition that tells people that, you know, 'Thy children must be infected with easily preventable diseases.'

"And we also have an option in New Brunswick that if people don't want to be part of a public system, they're free to home school their kids."

Under Policy 706, children are supposed to be immunized against measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, polio, pertussis, varicella and meningococcal disease before entering the school system. (The Canadian Press)

Cardy believes the only exceptions should be for medical reasons to ensure so-called herd immunity, or community immunity.

"If we had that herd immunity, this outbreak wouldn't have happened," he said.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, because measles is so highly contagious and spreads so easily, either through the air or direct contact with an infected individual, at least 95 per cent of people need to be vaccinated for herd immunity to work.

"If you don't want to get yourself vaccinated or your kids vaccinated, think about the kids who are suffering from severe immunosuppression" and can't be vaccinated, said Cardy.

Marissa Gootjes, 15, of Quispamsis, is just one of those students. She was happy to be back at Kennebecasis Valley High School after undergoing brain surgery to remove a cancerous tumour, followed by 13 months of chemotherapy, but now has to stay home because she's at risk of contracting measles.

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

Although some people have questioned whether mandatory immunization could violate charter rights, Cardy argued he also has a duty to protect the rights of students who are vulnerable.

"It doesn't make much sense when we spend time talking about move-over laws on highways and bike laws and helmet laws and stuff like that, if we're going to ignore the transmission of infectious, potentially fatal diseases in our schools," he said.

"If you're going to be in a public school system, we've got to take public health into account."

"That's going to be the choice that parents have to make is if they want to participate in the public school system. There are rules around public health there to protect everyone in our society and those rules will be enforced."

Measles is a highly infectious respiratory disease that's transmitted through the air or by direct contact. People can be contagious about four days before the telltale rash appears until four days after. (Submitted by Emmanuel Bilodeau)