Nova Scotia

Doctor urges against vaccine hesitancy after Halifax measles scare

After the Nova Scotia Health Authority warned about a potential risk of measles exposure at the Halifax Infirmary, a public health physician is pushing for people to ensure their vaccinations are up to date.

Nova Scotia has one of the lowest childhood measles vaccination rates in Canada

Dr. Jessica Jackman says she's seen a rise of misinformation being spread about vaccinations in recent years. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

A Nova Scotia doctor is urging people to ensure their vaccinations are up to date after a recent measles scare in a Halifax emergency room last week.

While Dr. Jessica Jackman said the most recent case of potential measles exposure is "low-risk," it's crucial for people to understand the importance of vaccinating against preventable diseases.

"What we want to do in public health is have people thinking about vaccination like any other preventable strategy," said Jackman, a public health physician and the regional medical officer of health for the province's central zone.

"You know how when you get in your car, you put on your seatbelt and it kind of just becomes something that's second nature … it's kind of just something you do."

But while vaccines are a proven way to prevent communicable diseases, Nova Scotia has among the lowest measles vaccination coverage rates in the country.

The rise of the 'anti-vaxxer' movement and vaccine hesitancy in recent years is concerning for doctors. (onair/Shutterstock )

According to 2013 figures from the Public Health Agency of Canada, an estimated 71.7 per cent of seven-year-olds in Nova Scotia had received two doses of measles vaccinations — second-to-last only to Nunavut, and well below the national average of 85.7 per cent.

"There are lots of different reasons why someone might not be vaccinated," said Jackman, who could not speak to why the rates were near the bottom in Nova Scotia specifically. 

"It could come down to misinformation that they've received, misperceptions about the safety or effectiveness of a vaccine or their ability to access [a] vaccine depending on where they live in the country."

Vaccine hesitancy a major global health threat: WHO

The rise of the "anti-vaxxer" movement and vaccine hesitancy in recent years is concerning for Jackman and other doctors who want to prevent the resurgence of diseases once thought to be a thing of the past in Canada.

The World Health Organization (WHO) identified vaccine hesitancy as one of 10 threats to global health in 2019.

"Vaccine hesitancy — the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines — threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases," said the organization.

It said vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease and currently prevents two to three million deaths a year. If global coverage of vaccinations improved, the number of lives saved could increase by an additional 1.5 million, said the WHO.

In the past few years, Jackman said she's noticed a rise in the spread of misinformation about the effectiveness of vaccines and the seriousness of the diseases they prevent.

Symptoms of measles include a red blotchy rash on the face, which spreads down the body. (CBC)

She attributes this increase to the proliferation of technology such as social media, which allows this misinformation to spread quickly to a large audience, much like a highly infectious virus.

Jackman said if people believe the misinformation and don't get vaccinated, they are putting their own health and that of others at risk.

"We really do depend on having a large number of people vaccinated so that we prevent diseases that we don't typically see in Canada from coming, and also protecting people who otherwise can't get vaccinated for medical reasons," she said.

"So by not having those people vaccinated and having that misinformation spread, it really does a disservice to the individual's health, as well as the health of society as a whole."

A new way of tracking vaccines in Nova Scotia

One of the ways the province is trying to understand some of the aversions people may have toward vaccination is through a new tracking system called Panorama, which has been recording public health-administered vaccinations since February 2018.

"So if it is due to misinformation, then how can we do a better job of communicating that information that measles-containing-vaccine is safe and effective?" said Jackman. "Or if it's due to not having sufficient access, then how can we ensure that we have access improved?

"What it's about is understanding that information about why people aren't vaccinated and then altering strategies based on that."

The Nova Scotia Health Authority is currently working on linking Panorama with electronic medical records used by primary-care providers, with an ultimate goal of a complete immunization registry of all sources of immunization data.


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