Toronto

Vaccine hesitancy 'very concerning and upsetting,' says doctor heading new U of T centre

As vaccine hesitancy poses a growing threat to public health, the University of Toronto is opening a new centre aimed at challenging misinformation about vaccines and ensuring Canada is ready for the next outbreak of a highly infectious disease.

University of Toronto launched Centre for Vaccine Preventable Diseases Thursday

Dr. Natasha Crowcroft says officials at the new centre want to 'figure out how to improve confidence in vaccination.' (CBC)

As vaccine hesitancy poses a growing threat to public health, the University of Toronto is opening a new centre aimed at challenging misinformation about vaccines and ensuring Canada is ready for the next outbreak of a highly infectious disease.

The Centre for Vaccine Preventable Diseases at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health will be home to scientists across multiple disciplines who will study disease and vaccination patterns, as well as how best to combat the spread of misinformation about vaccines.

Vaccine hesitancy "is a problem everywhere," the centre's director, Dr. Natasha Crowcroft — who also serves as the chief science officer at Public Health Ontario — told CBC Radio's Metro Morning Thursday.

"As somebody who has been working in vaccines for too long, longer than I care to mention, it's very concerning and upsetting."

The World Health Organization reports there has been a 300 per cent increase in measles outbreaks over the first three months of 2019, Crowcroft said. And the WHO has identified vaccine hesitancy as one of the top-ten threats to public health for this year.

Last month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the number of measles cases in the United States has hit a 25-year high, which it blamed on misinformation about the measles vaccine's safety.

Measles cases in Canada are also on the upswing, with a new case confirmed Wednesday in Niagara Region.

"We're so connected these days if we have vaccine preventable diseases anywhere in the world they are going to be a problem in Canada," Crowcroft said.

Vaccination recommendations for kids 'settled fact'

Most parents, she points out, are confident in vaccines and keep their children up-to-date with their vaccination schedule. But there is a "growing issue" of vaccine hesitancy, where parents are reluctant to vaccinate themselves or their kids, Crowcroft said, "and this is really what we want to address at the University of Toronto.

"We want to figure out how to improve confidence in vaccination, and also promote the science of vaccination. Parents in Canada have said they don't think that the science behind vaccines is clear, which is extraordinary to someone who works in the field because the science behind vaccines is so clear that I've even said in the past that it's not really even science anymore. What we recommend for kids today in Canada is what is settled fact."

Part of the centre's work will include helping front-line health-care workers gain the knowledge and skills to effectively communicate the benefits of vaccines to their patients, Crowcroft said. Physicians and other health-care providers also need to "learn new ways of approaching their patients" who are often getting information online that may not be as balanced as they think, she said.

"In the past it wasn't a question," Crowcroft said of getting children vaccinated. "If you went to your physician, you went to your pediatrician, you didn't have a discussion about whether or not you were to vaccinate."

In addition to vaccine hesitancy, the centre will focus on new vaccines that address other growing threats to public health, including anti-microbial resistance. Vaccines are in the works that could prevent diseases that the world is running out of antibiotics to treat, Crowcroft said.

She also noted that an ebola vaccine being used to help contain an outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is "a phenomenal change" for public health. The disease typically has a 70 per cent mortality rate.

Other issues scientists will look at include vaccines for seniors and for pregnant women, she said.

Scientists at the centre will work with counterparts locally and worldwide, including the WHO and Gavi, a public-private vaccine partnership backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"We're always going to have to be ready for the next infectious disease, the next pandemic," Crowcroft said.

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