B.C. measles outbreak underscores continued battle over vaccination holdouts

·National Affairs Contributor
Medical health officers in Lethbridge say they are bracing for a larger measles outbreak.

A serious outbreak of measles in Fraser Valley communities east of Vancouver is frustrating health officials, especially over the reasons for it.

While only two cases have been confirmed, about a hundred are suspected, which has triggered a warning from the Fraser Health Authority for residents, especially children, to get vaccinated.

Ground Zero for the outbreak appears to be a Christian school in Chilliwack that has low rates of immunization, apparently for religious reasons.

Fraser Health won't identify the school for fear of jeopardizing its work to protect people in the community, though it has been named in news reports.

The incident has exposed the continued resistance to vaccination programs that have proven effective in dealing with dangerous childhood illnesses. Some do it because they see it as interference with God's will and others still believe the debunked link between vaccinations and childhood autism.

[ Related: Wakefield's vaccine-autism link based on falsified data ]

Measles used to be considered a rite of passage for kids, along with mumps. But as the World Health Organization (WHO) points out, the virus is dangerous and kills tens of thousands each year.

Measles, which presents with cold-like symptoms followed by its trademark skin rash, is usually not fatal but its complications – respiratory infections, diarrhea, dehydration and encephalitis (an infection that causes brain swelling) – can be deadly to young children and adults over age 20. There's also a risk of miscarriage in pregnant women and blindness.

The disease remains common in developing countries and most deaths occur in poorer countries with weak health-care systems.

Vaccination rates are actually rising worldwide, according to WHO, reaching 84 per cent in 2012 from 72 per cent in 2000 for children receiving at least one dose (two are recommended).

But some First World holdouts don't accept the demonstrated benefits of immunizing their kids.

Fraser Health said the eastern Fraser Valley has immunization rates of 60-70 per cent, compared with 85 per cent nationwide. But the Chilliwack school where two measles cases were confirmed had a zero immunization rate, the National Post reported.

Post columnist Robyn Urback pointed out immunization rate in Canada is 10 per cent below the target needed to keep such eruptions from happening.

The problem, she said, is that immunization isn't mandatory for children attending public school. Some provinces, such as Ontario and New Brunswick, require vaccination for a range of dangerous diseases from measles and mumps to polio; parents can opt out for medical, religious or "conscience" reasons. This allows unvaccinated children to attend school unless there's an outbreak.

Parents who still buy into the discredited research tying vaccination to autism can also opt for so-called vaccines offered by homeopaths, which are actually approved by Health Canada, Urback said. About 150 such products, known as "nosodes" are approved for use by Health Canada, she said.

The department last fall stressed on its web site that it was not authorizing nosodes as an alternative to vaccines, and that it has required labelling to say that.

"That doesn’t stop some homeopathic practitioners from touting them as such, however," Urback wrote. "In reality, these nosodes are little more than a concoction of hope and make-believe — they use a tiny amount of infected material [skin, tissue, etc.] and dilute it to the point of insignificance."

[ Related: At least six confirmed cases as outbreak of whooping cough reported on P.E.I. ]

The Vancouver Coastal Health Authority is unequivocal about nosodes, highlighting them on its Quackery Watch page.

"Nosodes show no scientific evidence of any medical benefit," said the article by Dr. Paul Martiquet, its medical health officer for rural health.

"When misinformed and misled Canadians choose nosodes instead of vaccination they are given a false sense of security and endanger the Canadian public by lowering herd immunity."

Urback said it's impossible keep people from embracing religious or dubious scientific reasons for refusing vaccination.

"But what we can do is stop making it so easy for parents to snort at decades of evidence of the efficacy of vaccines and send their kids merrily off to school anyway," she wrote.

"Prayer and nosodes won’t prevent another measles outbreak, and it’s unfortunate that children will have to suffer because of those who believe they will."

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