Former anti-vaxxer urges respectful dialogue between health workers, fearful parents

An Ottawa woman and former "anti-vaxxer" whose seven children contracted whooping cough says the province's plan to make parents attend an educational session before choosing to exempt their kids from vaccination may backfire with some people.

'It's sort of all in the approach,' says Ottawa mom

Tara Hills says she and her husband mistakenly spent six years avoiding medical research on vaccinating children before re-evaluating their stance. (CBC)

An Ottawa woman and former "anti-vaxxer" whose seven children contracted whooping cough says the province's plan to make parents attend an educational session before choosing to exempt their kids from vaccination may backfire with some people.

Tara Hills says dialogue, not lecturing, will be the key to success.

"They're already distrustful and now there's a health official who's talking to them about an opposing view. That might kind of backfire a little bit and only back them further into a corner, especially if the session itself is done in a very lecture fashion rather than a dialogue fashion where they feel safe to talk," Hills told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Monday.

"When someone is talking to you about a very sensitive, personal topic, and their approach is hostile, human nature [compels us to] sort of close down, back off and not want to engage. If the person, however, is warm and engaging, you feel safe. You might feel comfortable vocalizing your concerns and listening to what they have to say.

"It's sort of all in the approach."

Hills made headlines in 2015 after she wrote a parenting blog post called "Learning the Hard Way: My Journey from #AntiVaxx to Science." Her seven children contracted whooping cough not long after she had changed her mind.

Last week, the Ontario Liberal government introduced legislation to strengthen vaccine rules. If passed, parents would be required to attend an educational session to get permission to exempt their children from vaccines for non-medical reasons.

The legislation would also require health-care providers to report to the public health unit what vaccines are given to children in an attempt to reduce school suspensions over out-of-date immunization records.

Statistics Canada says a high percentage of two-year-old children have been vaccinated against a variety of childhood diseases and most parents believe such shots are important. (Chuck Stoody/Canadian Press)

'Dark shadow' cast over vaccinations

Hills says the educational sessions should be handled with care.

"It's simply to approach it with as respectful a tone as possible, because unfortunately a lot of comment feeds and social media have cast a really dark shadow over this topic by vicious commentary and very rude personal remarks. And that's really tainted a lot of people's opinions of engaging with a pro-vaccine person," she said.

Three years ago, Hills said she would have entered the session "very guarded" with her arms crossed. But one year ago, she would have been more open to considering and scrutinizing both sides.

"It depends where they're starting from," she said.

It's also important for the province to engage with people where they are — on social media, watching television and sitting in movie theatres — with targeted ads.