04/24/2013 08:18 EDT | Updated 06/24/2013 05:12 EDT

Who Is to Blame for Canada's Low Vaccination Rate?


It's National Immunization Awareness Week in Canada and across the world, and UNICEF is reporting the failure of Canada to achieve the 95 per cent immunization rate required to protect the community from resurgences of deadly and debilitating infectious disease.

At just 84 per cent, we are even below the U.K., which is experiencing a severe measles outbreak, and we are at risk for an outbreak of whooping cough, measles or the dreaded childhood paralysis also known as polio. All it takes is one infected person to travel from an area where the disease is rampant to an area at risk in Canada, and we will have an outbreak.

This is no one organization's fault. I have spoken to concerned parents about their misgivings about vaccines and most site a distrust of the medical system or unwillingness or lack of time on the part of their doctor to discuss the side-effects or risks associated with vaccines. 

If the doctor does not want to discuss this, they feel, then the risks must be more dangerous than we thought -- or physicians are in the pocket of drug reps and the pharmaceutical industry and just want to sell more vaccines. 

It is also no wonder that in the wake of actual conspiracies on the part of industry to hide the dangers of smoking, and acid rain or other environmental pollutants, we have a rise of a belief in phantasmal conspiracies from other big corporations.

If this was just a grassroots problem then education would be the answer, I think. Outreach to patients and parents groups concerned about these problems would be easier and a little time set aside for education or frank discussion at the doctor's office would go a long way. 

This is not the case, however, and there is a concerted effort on the part of those left out of the medical establishment to twist, misinterpret or out make up facts about immunizations and vaccines. The alternative medical community -- naturopaths, homeopaths, chiropractors -- has made a considerable effort over the past three decades to spread fear and mistrust about vaccines and we have to recognize that they are part of the problem, no matter how well-intentioned.

We have solid evidence that naturopathic students become less supportive of vaccines as they progress through their training. They receive more training in homeopathy than in pharmacology and now naturopaths want to become primary care providers, the first point of contact for Canadians seeking medical advice.

Chiropractors, many of whom deny the idea that germs cause disease, have been shown to spread anti-vaccination ideas, and some Canadian homeopaths are even offering bogus alternatives to vaccines called nosodes, which Health Canada has deemed efficacious but that have no scientific evidence to support their use.

In the U.K., Wales is currently under the thumb of a measles outbreak, with over 800 cases so far, and one 25-year-old dead because of it. This is the result of a severe decrease in the immunization rate in that country after a bogus paper -- rife with conflicts of interest and bad science -- was published by Andrew Wakefield in the late 1990s, connecting vaccines with autism.  This was picked up by the alternative medical community because it already spoke their prior beliefs that mainstream medicine kills people and "natural medicine" can offer better solutions.

This is a gross oversimplification. Immunization by vaccine has been one of the most successful public health campaigns in the modern era, right up there with water and waste treatment. There are risks, to be sure, and vaccines are not 100 per cent effective, but the benefits far outweigh the risks.

To achieve the level of immunity in the community we need to ensure that childhood infectious diseases do not take hold we need to have everyone immunized. If someone only speaks to you about the risks of vaccines, then you are not getting the whole story; any medical treatment has risks and benefits, and when the proven benefits outweigh the risks, then they should be considered as effective treatments.

Time and again we see alternative medicine practitioners comparing the risks of standard medicine with the risks of alternative medicine, the unspoken premise being that they both work. This is disingenuous and unethical. Not only should you be including the benefits in this equation, but most of the time the alternative treatments have NO proven benefits and are the result of a non-scientific world view based on a fantasy. Informed consent, the cornerstone of modern medicine, means you give all of the facts, not just the ones that are convenient.

The solution is clear here. We have a disenfranchised public driven into the arms of alternative medical practitioners because the public doesn't trust or lacks access to physicians and nurses that can help.  Mainstream medicine needs not only to make a concerted effort to have frank discussions with their patients, but needs to speak out against the fake treatments and bad science of alternative medicine. 

Provincial and Federal governments need to recognize that alt-med and natural health product industries are working at cross-purposes with public health agencies and we need a national vaccination registry to track rates and identify problem areas. 

Finally, parents and patients need to be wary of false promises and charismatic spin and seek out unbiased and scientific sources for their information. Together we can all keep Canadians safe and eliminate the need for vaccines altogether: by eliminating the diseases themselves through proper immunization.

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