Concern about mandatory vaccination is not a new phenomenon in CanadaAlthough the majority of Canadian children are immunized, some parents have lingering misconceptions about vaccines
It’s a debate that sees both sides fighting passionately — even desperately — to save the lives of children.
Amid measles outbreaks around the world, the World Health Organization has now labelled “vaccine hesitancy” a threat to global health. The documentary Vaccine Wars explores how fear and misinformation around immunization have sparked increasingly public clashes between the medical community and anti-vaccine activists.
Vaccine proponents say immunization programs have saved countless lives by combating infectious diseases — many which younger generations have never seen firsthand. But opponents, including parents who say their children have been injured by the shots, believe vaccines can carry potentially devastating risks.
Suspicion and misconceptions persist in Canada
A national survey from 2015 found that 92 per cent of Canadian respondents considered vaccines safe, and trusted their doctor and public health officials. Figures from Statistics Canada that same year show roughly eight in 10 Canadian children were immunized against a host of diseases by their second birthday.
But the survey also revealed suspicion and lingering misconceptions about vaccines.
One third of respondents believed the pharmaceutical industry was behind the push for mandatory immunization. And a full 28 per cent thought vaccines were or might be linked to autism — an explosive allegation that has been closely examined and discredited, as the documentary shows.
Learn how the link was decredited by the medical establishment.
Anti-vaccine websites: Information may be misleading, says expert
Concern around mandatory vaccination is not a new phenomenon in Canada. Historically, the thalidomide crisis, cultural movements and political influences have all played a part.
The anti-vaccination movement gained steam in English-speaking Canada in response to Ontario’s 1982 Immunization of School Pupils Act, which made vaccines mandatory for students in the province. An organization known as the Committee Against Compulsory Vaccination lobbied for an amendment to the act allowing for philosophical or religious exemptions, and in 1984, it was written in.
Vaccine Choice Canada (VCC) is a politically active, national anti-vaccine organization that aims to continue the work of the Committee. VCC has “a very sophisticated website, and they have adopted a pseudo-scientific approach,” says University of Waterloo professor Heather MacDougall, who studies the history of medicine and health policy.
MacDougall examined one document from the VCC website titled “18 Facts About Vaccine Risk.”
“You read through them and, if you weren’t already scared, you’d be petrified by the time you’ve finished,” she says. But some sources quoted are dubious, notes MacDougall, while other information is misrepresented or misleading.
“Basically, I could go through all of these things and tell you, more or less, what’s wrong [with each one],” she says. “But for someone who doesn’t have the kind of background that I do, this looks professional — it looks as if it has the evidence to back it up.”
Lack of vaccine injury compensation a concern for some parents
University of Manitoba professor Michelle Driedger, who researches public risk and health risk communication, has worked with various focus groups and taken part in a public deliberation examining the issues around mandatory vaccination.
She has found that most parents who participate are supportive of vaccines. But she says one item of concern has also surfaced in the debates: the lack of a vaccine injury compensation program in Canada.
Both the United Kingdom and United States have government programs that may offer compensation for children that experience medical issues after a shot. Quebec is the only province or territory in Canada that has a vaccine injury compensation program, launched in 1985.
“When people become aware that there’s no compensation system, they’re like, ‘Well, there should be,’” Driedger says of the focus groups. “They did have the sense that, if public health is going to instil policies that we have to immunize, then there should be compensation if somebody does suffer from — however rare — a more serious consequence from the immunization process.”
Reports of serious adverse events (SAEs) following immunization are indeed rare in Canada. For vaccines administered in 2017, 1.1 out of 100,000 doses resulted in a SAE being reported. Reporting and tracking events does not prove the vaccine caused the negative health event — only that the event took place following immunization.
Would a national compensation program ease vaccine concerns in Canada? Driedger can’t be sure.
She says that immunization experts working in the Quebec system have argued that its provincial compensation program hasn’t necessarily reduced hesitancy around vaccines. Driedger adds that vaccine hesitancy in the province, like elsewhere in Canada, is “very complex with distinct dimensions.”
‘A highly emotional issue’
Vaccine Wars shows how misinformation around vaccination can travel across borders via social media. If you engage with this information, Driedger says, online algorithms can curate other content presented to you — potentially skewing the discourse around vaccines.
“Based on your digital footprint — the things that you like, the things you follow, the things you click on — it has a mechanism of trying to feed you more of the same,” she explains.
The result? Concerns may only be reinforced, instead of challenged.
Parents need access to credible information, Driedger says, and health care providers should be willing to discuss concerns while also offering firm support for the benefits of vaccines.
Vaccination is a public health issue, but for families, it’s also a personal one.
“Any parent who’s making a choice — whether they’re making a choice to vaccinate their child or making a choice not to vaccinate their child — that parent is ultimately making that choice out of love,” Driedger says. “And that’s what’s often missing in the understanding of the issues around vaccine hesitancy.
“It's a highly emotional issue, and people are trying to do what they think is best. They need to have that space to ask questions and to have somebody answer them in words they understand.”
For more, watch Vaccine Wars.