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04/11/2018 09:19 EDT | Updated 04/11/2018 09:19 EDT

Bad Information, Not Bad Parenting, Fuels Vaccine Apathy: Canadian Study

People were wary of vaccines long before anyone tried to link them to autism.

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Decades of misinformation, not "bad parenting," could be what's really to blame when a parent decides not to vaccinate their child, according to a new Canadian study.

The study, published in April in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, traces a history of drug scandals (such as the thalidomide disaster of 1962), medical training practices, and a "lack of political priority placed on disease prevention that started in the 1960s" as being responsible for the immunization apathy (or vaccine hesitancy) today, according to a news release.

And people contested the measles vaccine well before the infamous (and now debunked) study that linked the MMR vaccine to autism, the authors of the study noted.

"It's not all about the parents," Heather MacDougall, history professor at the University of Waterloo and co-author of the study, said in a news release.

"History reveals systemic problems including lack of public education, lack of access, lack of training, and, perhaps most importantly, lack of political will for a national immunization schedule."

Canada's vaccine strategy

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Public health officials have been calling for a national vaccine strategy for years, according to Maclean's magazine, but the strategy that exists remains "a patchwork" between the provinces.

The Globe and Mail, noting that Canada has one of the worst rates of childhood immunization in the developed world, called the system "shamefully clunky and disorganized." Every province tracks vaccines differently, according to the Globe and Mail, and less than half of the provinces actually have a registry.

The Canadian government recognizes that "vaccines are a cornerstone of public health and their use has significantly contributed to the prevention and control of infectious diseases in Canada and internationally," according to the Canadian Immunization Guide.

"In Canada, immunization programming is a shared responsibility between federal, provincial and territorial governments, with provincial and territorial governments and local public health authorities undertaking the planning and delivery of immunization programming," the guide notes.

There is a large group of "vaccine hesitant" parents

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The Canadian Paediatric Society and the National Advisory Committee on Immunization currently recommend that all children receive vaccines against: diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, Hib disease, rotavirus, infections caused by streptococcus pneumoniae, diseases caused by the meningococcus bacteria, measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis B, and HPV.

Only about 2 per cent of Canadians hold "anti-vaccine" views, according to a 2017 paper by the C.D. Howe Institute.

"They are not the main reason for insufficient vaccination coverage, and arguably too much attention and energy are spent trying to engage them. A more sensible strategy would instead target the large group of "vaccine hesitant" parents, whose children get some but not all vaccines, or fall behind schedule," the institute wrote.

There are a number of forces at play with vaccine apathy

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The thalidomide disaster, new styles of parenting, the popularity of alternative medicine, and even second-wave feminism have all played a role in vaccine hesitancy, the authors of the new study note in a press release.

Measles outbreaks in the 1970s and 1980s, and focus on children's rights in the 1990s, contributed as well, the authors said.

"Lack of sustained training in the rapidly changing science of immunology left Canadian health care practitioners with limited knowledge to provide guidance when asked to explain the benefits of vaccination to anxious parents," MacDougall said.

"By publishing our research, the Canadian Medical Association Journal confirms the relevance of humanities disciplines such as history to help us understand social phenomena such as vaccine hesitancy in the face disease outbreaks."

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