UNICEF released their Innocenti Report Card 11 last month, cataloguing how kids are doing in rich countries. Canada did not do very well.
Much of the media attention was on the news that Canada claims world-champion pothead status with 28 per cent of our young people smoking up. But elsewhere the results were less laughable.
We ranked 15 out of 29 countries in material well-being, 14th in educational well-being, and 16th in behaviour and risks. But over in health and safety, our kids ranked 27th--ahead of only Latvia and Romania--due to what CP described as "stunningly low" childhood immunization rates.
In fact, at a rate of 84 per cent for immunized children, we are ahead of only Austria on the list. Oh, and 95 per cent is the number "required to protect the community from resurgences of deadly and debilitating infectious disease."
That CP story tried to explain this number away by pointing out data holes due to a lack of either a federal or comprehensive provincial immunization registries. But while that may be true, a too-large number are no doubt also due to parents purposefully not vaccinating their kids. And, alongside the resurgence of an anti-vaccination movement, we're also seeing things like last year's whooping-cough outbreak that spread across Canada, infecting over 2,000 and killing an infant.
As Andre Picard noted at the time in The Globe and Mail, "Well-meaning parents are shunning vaccination in small but significant numbers because of imaginary fears largely concocted by quacks and charlatans. In doing so, they are giving almost-forgotten diseases the ability to resurface and cause real harm."
The anti-immunization movement has been mobilizing since the 1800s--or, essentially, since the development of vaccines themselves--but the most famous of anti-vax advocates is 1990s-era Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy, an unconscionable "activist" trying to hawk books by claiming vaccinations caused her son's autism despite all scientific evidence to the contrary.
As recently as two years ago, Time magazine reported a study that found 24 per cent of parents "place 'some trust' in information provided by celebrities such as McCarthy about the safety of vaccines." Twenty-four per cent.
And the movement has hardly died down since. This past March, anti-vax activists staged a "Vaccine Summit" in Vancouver, home to the Vaccine Resistance Movement, at Simon Fraser University under the banner: "the only shot you need is the truth."
If that sounds like something Alex Jones might say, well, you'd be on the nose. When not claiming terror attacks and mass shootings like Boston and Sandy Hook are government-sanctioned "false flags," conspiracy theorist du jour Jones devotes a lot of his radio show and website, Infowars.com, to topics like "Secret Government Documents Reveal Vaccines to be a Total Hoax," "Vaccine Victory: Widespread Resistance from Parents to HPV Jab for Daughters Shows Truth is Spreading," and "Infowars Confronts Bill Gates On Eugenics Vaccine Program."
But you can't just dismiss the anti-vax movement, because they are causing real harm. There's currently a measles epidemic in Wales, with cases of the deadly disease rising past 800, including one 25-year-old man who died while infected, while outbreaks have been occurring across England, which now has nearly 600 cases.
Much of the blame can be placed on the shoulders of Andrew Wakefield, the defrocked doctor (he lost his medical license in 2010) whose thoroughly debunked 1998 study claiming a link between vaccinations and autism kicked off the current anti-vax craze. (And yet the U.K. still claims over 90 per cent immunization compared to Canada's 84 per cent.)
And then there's Dr. Bob Sears, the son of attachment-parenting guru Dr. Bill Sears. Among his tomes for sale is The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child, in which he claims to have sussed out the secret to keeping your child safe that nobody else has come up with. On his website, Sears writes, "Should you vaccinate your child? This seems to be the question of the decade for many parents. It used to be 'How can I get my baby to sleep through the night?' or 'How can I get my toddler to eat better?' But now almost all parents have worries about vaccines."
Worries created by profiteers like him, but I digress. His solution is an alternative schedule of delaying vaccines, skipping some, and relying on "herd immunity," which basically means that if your child is surrounded by other vaccinated kids, then he or she will be safe from disease regardless of their own immunizations. His solution has also been thoroughly deconstructed as misinformation in the medical journal Pediatrics. (More recently, another study discredited the theory that multiple immunizations on the same day were a danger.)
Now here's the thing about being a parent. It is scary. You are in charge of a tiny little life and you have no idea what you're doing. And so the parent-industrial complex has risen up to profit off these fears. But in the case of vaccinations, they've dovetailed with the thriving conspiracy-theory movement online as well as the rise of "alternative" parenting philosophies to create a supposed clear and present danger.
We have responsibilities as parents, both to our children and the other children they spend time with at daycare, school or other gathering places to ensure their safety. And that includes getting them properly immunized. There's a desire on the part of many modern parents to dismiss conventional wisdom, but you simply don't know more than your doctor or the medical establishment, and neither do the authors and bloggers trying to convince you otherwise. Your family and friends, don't either, no matter how how many times they post anti-vax status updates or tweets. (A recent study found the number-one influencer for "vaccine-hesitant" parents was their social networks, online and off, but just because the internet is full of health "information," doesn't mean you should be crowd-sourcing your decisions based on the theories spouted by non-medical practitioners.)
Researching this column sucked me into an anti-vax vortex of bloggers and commenters absolutely convinced that science is wrong, and that instinct, pseudoscience, and anecdotal "evidence" is the real truth. In other aspects of parenting, this sort of alternative thinking only impacts the family at hand, but immunization is not one of them. So it's nobody's business how long someone like, say, actor and attachment-parenting author Mayim Biyalik chooses to co-sleep or breastfeed, but her decision to be a "non-vaccinating family" puts others in harm's way.
Herd immunity is intended to protect those who can't be vaccinated, like babies, people on chemo, or those with immunodeficincies. Every healthy unvaccinated child weakens that herd immunity and threatens lives with vaccine-preventable diseases.
This is why Ottawa Public Health came through on their ultimatum and last week suspended 603 unvaccinated students. As OPH spokesperson Eric Leclair told the National Post, "[there] a lot of mistruths out there. We have to fight that reality and try to show that vaccination, next to clean water and sanitation, is the most powerful public health tool that exists on the planet."
There are also risks, however limited and rare, to getting vaccines, but do you really want to regress to a time when smallpox and polio roamed the Earth and thinned that herd? No matter how well-meaning you may be as a parent, it is selfish to risk your little ones' lives, much less those of other parents who have no say and far too much to lose.
A version of this blog was originally published by The Grid.