New Brunswick

Education minister mulls mandatory immunization for teachers

New Brunswick Education Minister Dominic Cardy isn't ruling out mandatory immunization for teachers and school staff as the province deals with outbreaks of measles and whooping cough.

Dominic Cardy vows to explore all options to protect public in midst of measles and whooping cough outbreaks

Education Minister Dominic Cardy says immunization is 'not a joke. This is a public health issue.' (Gilles Landry/Radio-Canada)

New Brunswick Education Minister Dominic Cardy says he isn't ruling out mandatory immunization for teachers and school staff across the province.

His comments come in the midst of a measles outbreak in the Saint John region and a whooping cough outbreak in the Fredericton region.

"I want to make sure that we've got as close to universal vaccine regime in this province when it comes to the public education system, so I'm going to be looking at all different options in the next little while," he said.

For now, Cardy is urging every adult in the province to get immunized and get their children immunized "as quickly as possible."

"People's health and lives are at risk."

An unspecified number of teachers, staff and students at 19 schools across the Anglophone South School District have been told to stay home until early next week because of the measles outbreak.

They may have been exposed to the infected individual at Kennebecasis Valley High School in Quispamsis and could be incubating the highly contagious disease that's transmitted through the air or by direct contact, officials have said.

We don't want to go back to the old days of people dying of easily preventable diseases.​​​​- Dominic Cardy, education minister

Most people with measles recover completely after about 10 days, but 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.

A special immunization clinic for anyone born between 1970 and 1995 who doesn't have the recommended two doses of the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine, was held Thursday in Saint John at Exhibition Park, 39 McAllister Dr., until 8 p.m.

Public health is also offering whooping cough immunization clinics in Fredericton over the next week for those most at risk of the bacterial respiratory infection that's easily spread through droplets in the air from coughing and sneezing

Whooping cough, also known as as pertussis, can occur at any age, but is most serious in young children. For infants under the age of one, it can be fatal.

Teachers groups respond

The New Brunswick Teachers' Association and New Brunswick Teachers Federation had little to say about the prospect of mandatory immunization, responding to an interview request with a one-sentence emailed statement.

"[We're] confident that this issue is being handled by the proper authorities, Health and ASD-South, the school district," said spokesperson Blake Robichaud.

Cardy doesn't know what the immunization rates among teachers and staff are because the department isn't authorized to collect that data.

"Right now, I don't have the power to legislate [teacher and staff immunization] in any way," he said.

"That's certainly a conversation that will be had going forward, but right now, my goal is to use the powers I have to make sure that our students are properly protected so we can get herd immunity in classrooms up to 95 per cent or above — that's where we need to be."

Carmen Atkinson was one of about six registered nurses administering the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine at a public immunization clinic in Saint John on Thursday. Health officials could not immediately provide the number of people who attended. (Submitted)

New Brunswick does have a policy requiring students to prove they are immunized against several diseases, including measles, mumps and diphtheria, 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.

But Cardy said he only recently discovered the policy hasn't been enforced "for a very long time." The seven school districts have not been collecting the entry data, "despite the fact that it's mandated."

"We have no idea what the [immunization] rates are," he said.

"That's why I've been focusing on moving through the legal steps that I'm allowed under the act to get this problem fixed as quickly as I can."

Updating student vaccination rate data

Cardy said his first step is to get updated student non-compliance rates from the districts. Those numbers are "nearly ready," he said.

The next step will be to determine if those students have actually been vaccinated but their proof is at home, whether they're seeking an exemption for medical or personal reasons, or if they just didn't get the required shots.

Based on that information, decisions will be made about whether any schools will hold immunization clinics, he said.

"We're seeing the consequences now with the cases that are breaking out and the spike in diseases like measles around the world that we've obviously become a lot too complacent around the incredible gift that vaccines give to us as a population," said Cardy.

"So we need to remember that. We don't want to go back to the old days of people dying of easily preventable diseases. Let's use the public health system we've got, and put a lot of effort into building over a long time, and make sure everyone's immunized."

People infected with the measles virus can be contagious about four days before the telltale rash appears until four days after. (Submitted by Emmanuel Bilodeau)

There are still only two confirmed cases of measles in the Saint John region and they're related. The person from Kennebecasis Valley High School, announced on May 13, was at the Saint John Regional Hospital's emergency department at the same time as the first confirmed case, announced on April 26.

That person had recently travelled to Europe and visited the Halifax Infirmary's emergency department on April 17 for unrelated symptoms.

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, a red blotchy rash usually develops on the face and then spreads to the rest of the body.

The measles immunization clinic in Saint John was originally only for people who may have come into contact with one of the confirmed cases, but was later opened up to the general public. (CBC)

There are 22 confirmed cases of whooping cough in the greater Fredericton area, including 19 school-aged children from several schools.

Whooping cough starts with cold-like symptoms, such as sneezing, runny nose, low-grade fever and a mild cough that gradually worsens, leading to serious coughing spells that often end with a "whoop."

Symptoms usually begin within seven to 10 days of exposure. If left untreated, an infected person can spread the disease for up to three weeks after the coughing begins.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.