Dr Brett Levy, who heads up New York City’s borough of Brooklyn, is working to help prevent health workers from getting the measles, mumps and rubella virus. | Dallas McChord Museum of Medicine / Ezra Felson
Doctors across Canada’s largest city on Thursday gathered at the Children’s Hospital Toronto to rally on behalf of parents who don’t want their children immunized for a very serious disease.
The march is part of a growing public and political backlash in a city where a measles outbreak has resulted in nearly 25 confirmed cases, and infected dozens more in nearby Toronto suburbs, prompting new vaccination requirements and heated debates on social media.
“It’s been a recurring theme, to know that if you are not vaccinated, then your child is probably at risk of developing the disease,” Jonathan Katz, director of public health for Toronto, told the Guardian.
“People feel that the risk is just too great,” he added. “They have reasons to be concerned.”
The city, under pressure from local community advocates and residents, has increased its efforts to stamp out the measles – even at the expense of non-vaccination. Toronto is in the midst of introducing mandatory vaccine requirements for three city agencies: health care workers, city employees, and all school-aged children who attend city school and extracurricular activities.
The city is also making it illegal for these school children to go out without their measles, mumps and rubella (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine.
Health officials are already very active in educating and encouraging parents to keep their children protected from measles, mumps and rubella.
But fewer people are getting vaccinated.
In the years before the Canadian measles vaccination was introduced, pediatric doctors said three million Canadians contracted measles, resulting in more than 1000 deaths and thousands of cases of serious complications like pneumonia and encephalitis, Katz said.
Now the rate of measles vaccination in Canada is considered “excellent”, he said.
The increased attention on immunization has led to a swelling number of people who don’t want to vaccinate their children for personal reasons, Katz said. And while some of these parents may be completely ignorant of the facts, the rest are motivated by a fear that vaccines can cause autism.
Some of the new requirements in Toronto take effect today.
“The vast majority of the people who aren’t vaccinated aren’t doing it in a deliberate way,” Katz said. “It’s a misconception that a vaccinated child is safer.”
Non-vaccinating parents are a minority – about 10% in the city, according to Katz.
Last year, health officials in Toronto introduced new regulations aimed at countering the parental opposition to vaccines. Under the new rules, parents who refuse to vaccinate their children will have to pay a fee.
“There are exemptions granted to parents for personal or religious reasons. But we’re moving toward a point where we’re asking people to pay to claim their personal exemption,” Katz said.