Stop letting students skip vaccines on philosophical or religious grounds, Ontario government urged

Doctor also suggests search engines, social media outlets adopt measures to reduce misinformation

Toronto’s medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa speaks to the media at city hall in Toronto, on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. De Villa wants the Ontario government to stop letting students skip their vaccines on philosophical or religious grounds. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

Toronto’s medical officer of health wants the Ontario government to stop letting students skip their vaccines on philosophical or religious grounds.

It’s among several recommendations Toronto Public Health lists in a broad proposal to boost vaccination rates, which also include sending reminder notifications when a vaccination is due.

But a key measure would make it tougher to avoid vaccines under the Immunization of School Pupils Act.

READ MORE: Risk of measles remains, two months after last confirmed Vancouver Island case

READ MORE: B.C. launches mandatory vaccine registry for schoolchildren

Dr. Eileen de Villa asks the health ministry to only allow exemptions for medical reasons, and says the medical reasons should be submitted by a certified health-care provider.

She also suggests that major search engines and social media outlets including Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram, adopt measures to reduce misinformation about vaccines; and that the province consider developing a compensation program for people who may experience a serious side effect from a vaccine.

The World Health Organization considers the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate as one of the top 10 global health threats. In Canada, it is estimated that 20 per cent of parents have questions about vaccines.

READ MORE: Province to review $40K annual grant for society linked to anti-vaccine claims

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Last month, Pinterest announced it will try to combat vaccine misinformation by only showing posts from health groups such as the WHO. Instagram also has a pop-up giving users who search for vaccine posts the option to visit the Centers for Disease Control website.

The Toronto report notes that in the United States, non-medical exemption rates have led to the circulation of rare and dangerous vaccine-preventable diseases such as whooping cough and measles.

“U.S. states, such as California, which have removed non-medical exemptions, have shown improved immunization rates in schools,” says the report, which will be considered by a city council advisory board next Monday.

“Before philosophical and religious exemption rates reach dangerously high levels in Toronto, it is important and timely for the provincial Ministry of Health to consider removing philosophical and religious exemptions from its legislation.”

The report says that over the last 13 years, there has been “a slow and small, but steady increase” in philosophical and religious exemptions among Toronto elementary and secondary school students.

The rate increased to 1.72 per cent in the 2018/19 school year for the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine from 0.8 per cent in the 2006/07 school year.

The Canadian Press

READ MORE: Anti-vaccine campaign ‘very concerning,’ says Ontario health minister

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