Toronto

Anti-vaccination billboards in Toronto being removed, company says

A series of digital billboards that went up around the city implying that vaccines are dangerous for children are being removed, according to the media company that posted them.

Non-profit group had paid for 50 digital billboards across the city

The non-profit group Vaccine Choice Canada paid for digital billboards in 50 locations across Toronto. (Ted Kuntz/Facebook)

A series of digital billboards that went up around the city implying that vaccines are dangerous for children are being removed, according to the media company that posted them.

The billboards were called "deeply disturbing, and potentially dangerous," by Coun. Joe Cressy, who represents Spadina-Fort York, in a tweet on Wednesday morning. Cressy is also chair of the city's board of health. 

"Immunization has saved more children's lives than any other health-care intervention in history," he said in an interview with CBC Toronto.

"This misinformation campaign is dangerous. I'm deeply concerned."

The billboards were paid for by the group Vaccination Choice Canada and went up on Feb. 21. According to a Facebook post by one of the group's members, the campaign consisted of four rotating images shown on 50 signs across Toronto.

Outfront Media, the company that owns the billboard properties, confirmed Wednesday afternoon that the signs are coming down. Spokesperson Carly Zipp declined to comment further. 

The campaign was to run for two weeks, wrote Ted Kuntz, who describes himself in various open letters as the parent of a "vaccine-injured child" who is now deceased.

"A huge thank you to our many donors who made this possible. And a very special thank you to many individuals for their tireless efforts in creating the images and doing all of the many, many behind the scenes tasks it takes to make this happen," Kuntz wrote.

"I hope everyone enjoys their driving around the GTA just a little bit more," he added.

On its website, the non-profit group says its goal is to "inform the public about the existing and emerging scientific research literature evaluating the risks, side-effects and long-term health effects of current vaccination policies."

It denies that it is "anti-vaccination," but rather "vaccine risk aware."

The billboards display four rotating images that suggest vaccines are dangerous for children. (Ted Kuntz/Facebook)

In an email statement, Kuntz said the group hopes the campaign "will encourage Canadians to better educate themselves on the medical practice of vaccination so that their consent is truly informed.

"Two of the billboards ask questions which we hope will stimulate parents to do more in depth research. One addresses the issue that vaccines are voluntary in Canada. Many people have been misled by the media and public health that vaccines are mandatory," Kuntz said.

The fourth points out that Canada does not have a "national vaccine injury compensation program to compensate those who are injured and killed by vaccines."

Cressy, pointing to a resurgence of measles cases in Europe and Japan, previously said he was active in conversations with Toronto's chief medical officer of health and legal department about whether there are ways to "intervene" in the campaign.

"Our role in public health is educate people to make informed based on evidence. We have a responsibility to correct misinformation, and we are going to do that."

The city has jurisdiction over the content of ads displayed on land that it owns. However, Cressy previously said it was not clear what action could be taken to have ads removed from privately owned property.

The billboard campaign comes amid several high-profile cases of the measles in Canada and a growing anti-vaccination movement worldwide. 

Canada now has 14 confirmed cases of measles in 2019 — 13 in British Columbia and one in Quebec — and Alberta authorities have issued a health alert after an infected traveller spent 19 hours in the Edmonton area, en route from Vancouver to Inuvik, N.W.T. 

The World Health Organization estimates that 136,000 people died from measles in 2017 and that the MMR vaccine first introduced in the early 1960s now prevents two to three million deaths annually. The UN agency has listed "vaccine hesitancy" among its top 10 threats to global health in 2019.

In his email, Kuntz said the billboard campaign is unrelated to current cases in Canada.

"The billboard messages were funded by the donations of Canadians who support the medical ethic of informed consent," he said. "This campaign had been in the planning stages for months and has no relationship to the media fuelled hysteria in B.C."

With files from CBC's Lucas Powers and Lauren Pelley

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