02/13/2015 09:28 EST | Updated 04/15/2015 05:59 EDT

End Vaccine Exemptions Now (Even In Your Precious Alternative School)

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I got a measles vaccine booster shot this week because I needed to be sure I couldn't bring harm to my community. And I mean that literally, as measles has now arrived in my Toronto neighbourhood.

An infected parent dropped their kid off at a nearby YMCA daycare in late January, potentially exposing 120 children. At least one of those kids was unvaccinated and goes to a French Immersion school that also has kids who are in my son's daycare. One of his best friends in daycare has an infant sibling. Infants can't be vaccinated.

This is not theoretical for me anymore. This is not a bunch of kids who went to Disneyland in far off California, it's not an outbreak at religious schools in B.C.'s Fraser Valley, it's here in Canada's biggest city.

In fact, right now, a 15-day-old baby might have been exposed because of this absurdist anti-vaxxer movement.

The proximity of measles also prompted me to start poking around the Toronto Star's interactive map of Immunization Exemptions in Toronto's Schools (based on 2011/2012 stats) and what I found sadly didn't surprise me -- alternative schools host scary percentages of kids with vaccine exemptions.

(At many of the schools, both mainstream and alternative, the vaccine coverage rates and exemption rates don't add up to 100 per cent, leaving an "unknown" number of children who may or may not be vaccinated. This discrepancy could be explained, however, by Toronto Public Health's Dr. Barbara Yaffe statement to Global News last year that "sometimes, students are coming from another country and immunization records could be in a different language and need to be translated. In other instances, families need to track down archived medical records from their doctors.")

Now the high exemption rate at alternative schools wasn't surprising because they are predominantly populated by upper middle-class white kids whose parents don't trust the mainstream school system to educate their children (though their Waldorf-inspired, social justice-focused alt-schools are still paid for by the public purse).

According to the Toronto District School Board's own study, "Alternative schools tend to be less diverse than other schools in the TDSB in general...and largely serve students from more affluent families (e.g., families with high socioeconomic status, two-parent household, and parents with higher education)."

The vaccine exemption map has bigger dots for the higher percentages exemptions and these mostly belong to alternative schools with granola names like Grove, Da Vinci and Equinox Holistic -- and they are hosted within mainstream public schools.

One local alternative elementary school (which scores twice as high on the Learning Opportunities Index as its host school, meaning its children tend to come from more stable, wealthier, better educated families) had 36.5 per cent of its students, or 31 kids, claiming exemptions for the MMR (measles, mumps rubella) vaccine.

Its host school had an exemption rate of 1.6 per cent, which is six kids.

There's no way to know how many of these exemptions are medical, but all these students from both schools share the library, computer lab, gym, auditorium and school yard. That means the kids whose parents made a choice to get non-medical exemptions are a threat to those who have no choice and can't get vaccinated.

Unfortunately, anyone in Ontario can get a vaccine exemption.

Although the province claims it mandates immunizations, in actual fact anyone can get an exemption. Medical exemptions for children with immunodeficiency, cancer, HIV or other reasons like allergies that prevent them from getting vaccinated require a doctor's note.

But all anti-vaxxers have to do is sign a form that states "The requirements of the Immunization of School Pupils Act conflict with my sincerely held convictions based on my religion or conscience."

That's it. They don't even have to write a damn essay explaining what those sincerely held convictions are. And the Ontario government has the audacity to call their immunization policy mandatory. Same goes for the other two "mandatory" provinces, Manitoba and New Brunswick, which also allow exemptions for "religious or ideological reasons."

The rest of Canada doesn't even have that, relying instead on a policy of telling unvaccinated kids to stay home from school in case of an outbreak.

Well, enough is enough.

Measles were declared eradicated from Canada in 2002 and we now have annual outbreaks of this highly contagious kid killer. (Yes, it does kill. According to the World Health Organization, 2.6-million children died annually before the vaccine came into widespread use around the world in 1980 and by 2012, with an 84 per cent vaccination rate, that number was brought down to 122,000, which is 14 children dying every hour.)

You still can't force people to vaccinate any more than you can force them not to drink and drive -- in both cases, selfish people are gambling with other's lives -- but you can take away a drunk driver's license. We need to take a similar stand here.

Children with non-medical vaccine exemptions need to be removed from the public school system, from daycares and from extracurricular activities and athletics. This must be done to achieve the vaccination rate of 95 per cent needed for herd immunity to protect the children who medically can't get vaccines and the infants who are too young.

A 2008 Toronto Star article headlined "Alternative school students less likely to be vaccinated," quoted one mother as saying her fellow parents are "suspicious because the government insists on doing it, so they push the other way." Another said, "If a parent chooses not to vaccinate, then it's because they feel that's the best way to keep their child safe."

The issue is obviously not new, but it still prompts the same question: What about other people's children? Ironically, most of these alternative schools even claim to focus on fostering community through activism and service.

Given how many anti-vaxxer parents consider themselves social progressives maybe it's time for them to stop just thinking about themselves and start making progressive choices that protect our whole society.


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