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Growing anti-vax movement has global ramifications

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

Summer Dubeau, 12, of Lake Stevens, Wash., holds a sign in front of the Legislative Building during a protest against vaccinations before a hearing in Olympia, Wash., on Feb. 20. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.


  • The anti-vaccination movement is spreading worldwide, leading to record-setting numbers in the resurgence of preventable disease.
  • Electric cars are on the rise, but are the vehicles ready for the mainstream? David Common gets behind the wheel to find out. 
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

The global impact of anti-vaxxers

The growth of Europe's anti-vaccination movement so closely mirrors the rise of its populist parties that a new study recommends that health officials use opinion poll data to predict coming measles outbreaks.

The paper, published Monday in the European Journal of Public Health, plotted past clusters of the highly contagious and sometimes deadly disease against European Parliament election results and found a strong correlation between votes for anti-establishment movements and anti-vax beliefs.

"The higher the level of populist votes in a country, the greater the proportion of the population that believe vaccines are not effective," writes Jonathan Kennedy, a researcher at Queen Mary University of London.

Vaccine hesitancy and political populism, he notes, thrive on similar dynamics: A "profound distrust in elites and experts."

Measles in Europe hit a 20-year high in 2018, with 83,000 confirmed cases and 72 deaths, driven by a huge outbreak in Ukraine and sizeable transmission clusters in Serbia, France, Italy and Greece.

Globally, the World Health Organization tracked a 50 per cent spike in the entirely preventable disease, finding protracted and growing outbreaks in all regions of the world. 

The WHO 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.

Philippine National Red Cross and Health Department volunteers conduct house-to-house measles vaccination to children in Manila on Feb. 16. (Bullit Marquez/Associated Press)

Yet parental fears and misinformation about the inoculations have spread widely via the internet, to the point that the UN agency now lists "vaccine hesitancy" among its Top 10 threats to global health in 2019.

The consequences of unchecked outbreaks can be devastating.

More than 900 have died in Madagascar, where measles have sickened 68,000 people since last September. 

The Philippines has seen 189 measles deaths so far in 2019, with just short of 11,500 confirmed cases as of late last week. And President Rodrigo Duterte's government is considering implementing a "no vaccination, no enrolment" policy for public schools in an effort to bring the disease under control.

But the pain and suffering that the disease still causes in the developing world doesn't seem to make much of an impression in richer nations.

Japan is currently experiencing its worst measles outbreak in more than a decade, with 167 reported cases in the first six weeks of 2019, many of them linked to an anti-vax religious group.

Canada now has 14 confirmed cases for the year — 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. 

And a vacationing French family reintroduced measles to Costa Rica last week via an unvaccinated five-year-old boy — the Central American nation's first case since 2014.

However, there are signs of a growing pushback against the anti-vaccination movement.

On Friday, YouTube stopped placing ads on channels that promote anti-vax content, depriving their owners of revenue as part of a concerted effort to clamp down on "harmful or dangerous" views. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the company's decision came after several major brands pulled their ads from the platform over concerns that pedophiles have been using it to lure victims.)

And it appears that Pinterest has also been quietly trying to purge anti-vaccination messages from its sharing and scrapbooking site by disabling related searches.

Overcoming now-entrenched anti-vax fears won't be easy, though. 

An Angus Reid opinion survey released last week found 83 per cent of respondents "wouldn't hesitate" to vaccinate their own children. But 26 per cent admitted at least some concern about potential side effects. And among those who have children under 12 years of age, 20 per cent said the choice to inoculate or not should be left to parents.

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Electric road trip

Reporter David Common and a CBC News crew took an all-electric vehicle on a road trip to Detroit. There were some … challenges. 

Even before the U.S. border guards joked about our boxy, battery-powered vehicle, we knew we were in trouble. We'd gone off course, depleting that battery, shortening our range and putting in doubt whether we'd even make it to the Detroit Auto Show. 

What began as a strong start for our electric vehicle journey was not ending well. 

We were test-driving a Kia Soul, one of the least expensive, purely electric vehicles available today. It has a range of 160 kilometres, although frigid winter temperatures lower that to 120 km or so. Cost to recharge: Under $2, so as long as you do it at home. Paying for chargers at gas stations, community centres, malls and so on cost several times more. 

Electric vehicles are increasingly popular, but the infrastructure to support them isn't always convenient. David Common waits for a charge in Sarnia, Ont. (Jill English/CBC)

But for the daily commuter, recharging elsewhere isn't needed. The average Canadian commute is 23 km one way, so even with a stop at the soccer field, the grocery store and day care, our car could easily handle a daily commute. 

So what's holding people back from embracing EVs?

Survey after survey report the same four barriers: Entry cost — often $15,000 more than the gas model — is the big one.

The remaining three all have to do with range: 

  • Can the car go as far as I need to, without a recharge?
  • If I have to recharge, are there enough stations along the way?
  • How long does it take to recharge?

Our entry-level EV would make up the difference in purchase price over a traditional gasoline-powered car in less than five years of never visiting a gas station. The range questions, though, needed a challenge. 

So we headed out from Toronto to Detroit, a 400-kilometre, cross-border journey.

After downloading an app showing charging stations, we had no problem plotting a route — there are hundreds in southern Ontario, though primarily in cities, and fast-chargers can take an EV to full charge in just over a half-hour.

Electric vehicle devotees had drilled into us the need to have a plan for a long trip, along with a backup plan in case a charging station was being used or broken upon our arrival. But we hadn't planned for human error. 

The producer, videographer and I got chatting (office gossip, of course), and we missed our turnoff. It only took us about 15 km off our route, but it meant we couldn't make it to our intended charging station. Plan B took effect. 

We ended up driving not to Windsor, Ont. — directly across from Detroit — but to Sarnia. And then the charger where we stopped, at a Tim Hortons, was slower than the two others we'd used. A lot slower. It took well over an hour and we didn't even fill up.

Trouble was, we had a meeting at the Detroit Auto Show and now there was no chance of making it. 

We reached the border, welcomed by two U.S. border agents who joked about our battery on wheels. Then they spotted the TV equipment and off we went to secondary inspection. I'll spare you the boring bureaucratic details, but suffice to say, those guards drove our car around, then made us go back to Canada and return to the U.S.

It all cost us time and available range. 

How do you extend the range in a pinch? Turn off the heat. All of it. Blowers, seat warmers, everything. 

It boosted the range by 20 per cent, but meant we were all left freezing in an increasingly frosty car racing to Detroit with the –20 C temperatures seeping in. 

Well, we made it. Just. Rolling in on fumes. (If the car had fumes.) 

And then we saw it. Our car, but newer, on display at the auto show. And then the revelation: The 2020 model will have the range to make the same journey in one shot. 

All a good reminder that many EVs still require planning for trips longer than a commute. But also that the batteries in newer models are getting much better — so you'll be able to leave the heat on while you drive!

- David Common

WATCH: The story about advances in electric vehicle technology, tonight on The National on CBC Television and streamed online.

    A few words on ... 

    Real hockey talk.

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    - Alva Johnson, a former 2016 Republican campaign staffer, telling the Washington Post that Donald Trump kissed her without her consent, a charge the White House denies. The 43-year-old says she remains troubled by the incident and has filed a lawsuit seeking unspecified damages for emotional pain and suffering.

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    Today in history

    Feb 25, 1975: Comparing marijuana and alcohol: a demonstration

    "Whatever became of Mary Jane?" asks Lloyd Robertson, as the "concern and furor of the late 1960s" gives way to the mellow mid-70s. As the Senate debates loosening Canada's marijuana laws, CBC's Newsmagazine presents a bold experiment comparing the effects of booze and pot. One group of volunteers pounds Screwdrivers before the cameras, while another smokes joints provided by a woman in a white lab coat. The conclusion? Both groups appear to have a good time.

    Marijuana vs. alcohol: a demonstration

    48 years ago
    Duration 27:18
    Two groups of teens get intoxicated for CBC cameras.

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    Jonathon Gatehouse

    CBC Investigative Journalist

    Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.


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