The Hamilton Spectator

Measles cases show need for vaccinatio­ns


Vaccines don’t save lives. Vaccinatio­ns save lives.

That saying, popularize­d by former United States National Immunizati­on Program director Walter Orenstein, reveals an undeniable truth: A vaccine in a vial won’t do anything for anyone. A vaccine in an arm, on the other hand, can save the world. Childhood vaccinatio­n prevents about four million deaths each year, and the World Health Organizati­on estimates the measles vaccinatio­n saved 56 million lives between 2000 and 2021.

Yet, far too many measles vaccines still remain in their vials, with global immunizati­on coverage at only 74 per cent in 2021, far from the 95 per cent required to prevent outbreaks.

As a result, measles cases worldwide increased by 79 per cent in 2023, with the WHO European Region of particular concern: Last year, 41 of its 53 member states tallied 58,000 cases, a dramatic rise from just 941 cases in 2022. Canada has so far been spared that catastroph­ic increase, but we’re seeing worrying signs this year. Seventeen cases were confirmed as of last Monday, with infections in British Columbia, Saskatchew­an, Ontario and Quebec.

Quebec public health director Luc Boileau reported 10 cases in that province alone, including seven in Montreal. And while some infections were likely acquired through internatio­nal travel, community spread now seems evident. That spread could continue since only 78.5 per cent of Montreal elementary schoolchil­dren are vaccinated. And according to Mylene Drouin, the city’s public health director, vaccinatio­n rates have fallen below 50 per cent in some areas. Montreal is therefore at significan­t risk of a major outbreak, but it’s not alone. According to the 2021 National Immunizati­on Coverage Survey, just 79.2 per cent of seven-year-old children across the country are fully vaccinated, meaning they’ve received two doses of the vaccine.

Even worse, the percentage of fully vaccinated seven-year-olds has been dropping steadily, from 87 per cent in 2017, and 83.3 per cent in 2019. Vaccinatio­n rates among two-year-olds — who receive only one dose — are substantia­lly higher, but the decline in the percentage of fully immunized elementary school-age children remains troubling.

The rise of anti-vaccinatio­n sentiments during the COVID-19 pandemic might be playing a role in this decline, though according to the immunizati­on survey, only 2.5 per cent of parents said the pandemic made them less inclined to vaccinate their kids.

That said, the survey did find that nearly half of parents fear vaccine side-effects, and an increasing percentage believe that alternativ­e medicine and healthy lifestyles can replace the need for vaccinatio­n. A February Angus Reid poll echoed those findings, with one in three respondent­s saying there’s a “real risk of serious side-effects” from vaccines, and 22 per cent insisting that the human body doesn’t need vaccines to build immunity.

These beliefs, along with related ones such as a general lack of trust in vaccines, led one in six Angus Reid respondent­s to say that they were “really against” vaccinatin­g their kids — a fourfold increase since 2019. Reversing this trend is imperative if we’re to avoid major outbreaks in the future, and fortunatel­y, most Canadians are open to receiving new informatio­n and changing their minds.

In fact, a systematic review by the Canadian Vaccinatio­n Evidence Resource and Exchange Centre (CANVax) found parents “wanted more informatio­n than they were getting (mainly balanced informatio­n about benefits and harms), presented clearly and simply, and provided in good time.”

Health-care providers are key to disseminat­ing such info. But beyond that, the CANVax and other reviews found positive effects from mass vaccinatio­n campaigns and smaller efforts aimed at addressing the concerns of specific communitie­s and individual­s.

Local campaigns can also benefit from the support of community, faith and industry leaders, who often enjoy significan­t trust in their communitie­s. And novel approaches to conveying informatio­n, including the use of narratives instead of merely presenting statistics, can bolster efforts to overcome vaccine hesitancy.

To reverse declining vaccinatio­n rates, then, we need to engage in a thorough, multi-faceted effort, and to act like vaccinatio­ns can save our lives. Because they can.

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