This school may have the city's highest philosophical vaccine exemption rate

Some parents of children at one Ottawa elementary school say they're concerned about the number of students there who have philosophical exemptions for vaccinations.

During the 2018-19 school year, 11.26 per cent of students at the Trille des Bois school in Vanier, a French-language alternative school, had philosophical exemptions on file.

That's the highest percentage for any school in the local public or Catholic boards, both English-language and French-language, according to data provided by Ottawa Public Health. (That data did not include private schools.)

It also equates to about 60 of the school's 533 pupils.

"It's a little upsetting," said Megan Apsimon, a physician whose four-year-old son attends Trille des Bois.

"Vaccines aren't 100 per cent [effective], so people who aren't vaccinated and bringing illnesses in can put other children or children who can't be vaccinated for medical reasons at high risk," she said.

'Just doesn't make sense'

In Ontario, nine vaccines are mandatory for all school-aged children under the Immunization of School Pupils Act. Those vaccines cover diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), polio, measles, mumps, rubella, meningococcal diseases and varicella (chicken pox) for children born in or after 2010.

However, parents are able to obtain exemptions for medical or philosophical reasons.

Medical exemptions can be given if someone has a certain health condition or an allergy to a component of the vaccine, said Marie-Claude Turcotte, program manager of OPH's immunization unit.

Philosophical exemptions are granted for religious or personal beliefs.

"It's alarming," said Rachel Geddy, whose two children attend Trille des Bois and whose husband can't be vaccinated because he's undergoing treatments for a medical condition.

Fellow parent Colin Meredith called it "a little bit selfish" to simply think about one's own child instead of the broader population.

"It just doesn't make sense why that's even allowed to happen in a publicly funded school," he said.

Francis Ferland/CBC

Other parents say it's more of a grey area.

"I think that you gotta try and balance the science with people's personal beliefs. It's a tricky situation," said Nic Courtemanche.

"I understand, you know, people have various reasons for not doing so. It's their right," added Maggie Fondong, the mother of twin five-year-old boys.

Both said they vaccinate their own children, and also expressed concerns about protecting those who can't be vaccinated.

Kimberley Molina/CBC

2nd highest in Old Ottawa East

In a statement to CBC Ottawa, the Conseil des écoles publiques de l'Est de l'Ontario said it "works closely" with the public health units that regulate immunization at Trille des Bois and its other schools, but isn't to blame if parents seek exemptions.

"The CEPEO facilitates communication between parents and public health but is not responsible for compliance," the board said.

The second-highest philosophical exemption rate in Ottawa was Lady Evelyn Alternative School in Old Ottawa East, with 10.74 per cent for the same school year.

With a population of 149 pupils, that equates to about 16 children.

Kimberley Molina/CBC

As of Sept. 2017, parents seeking philosophical exemptions must sign a statement of conscience or religious belief and attend an information session. In Ottawa, that involves one-on-one sessions with a public health nurse and requires watching a 30-minute film about vaccinations.

"There's no question parents want to do what's best for their children. And so our role is really to make sure they have all the information, and they can make that decision," said Turcotte.

Once a child has an exemption, it stays on their file until it's withdrawn or the student turns 18.

Turcotte stressed that just because a child has a philosophical exemption doesn't mean they haven't been vaccinated.

It could simply mean their parents applied for the exemption to study the matter further, and then did eventually immunize their child.

Two per cent the average

According to Turcotte, the average philosophical exemption rate in Ottawa schools is two per cent.

While she couldn't explain why Trille des Bois had a much higher rate, she said it could come down to a group of "vaccine hesitant" parents.

"Either they filed an exemption because they wanted to take more time to think about whether or not they want to vaccinate their child ... or they don't believe in vaccines and, you know, it goes against their personal beliefs," she said.

Turcotte said it's important to have a record of children who aren't vaccinated in case there's a situation where a child comes down with a disease.

Depending on the type of disease, unvaccinated children could be taken out of school for their own protection, she said.