By Dr. Perry Kendall
Provincial Health Officer
April 26 - May 3, 2014, is National Immunization Awareness Week in Canada and an excellent opportunity to open discussion and increase awareness about the importance of immunization to protect ourselves and our families from preventable diseases.
The recent large outbreak of measles in the Fraser Valley once again highlights the need to encourage immunization for children in all areas of the province. Protecting our children against diseases like measles, chickenpox, mumps, meningococcal meningitis, rubella, pertussis, influenza and polio, is as important as using an infant car seat or wearing a seat belt when driving.
Vaccines have a proven track record of being highly effective in protecting us throughout our lifespan. Immunization programs have eradicated smallpox and for most Canadian parents, deadly, life threatening and crippling childhood diseases are a thing of the past. Polio vaccination is the reason we no longer have hospital wards full of children in iron lungs. Indeed, a whole generation of parents has grown up without the spectre of these once common diseases. Canada has actually been free from endemic measles since 1998. However, large outbreaks in unvaccinated communities have been seen when cases are imported from parts of the world where measles is still quite common.
Paradoxically, the very success of childhood vaccination programs has led in some cases to complacency ("these illnesses are no longer there for us to worry about"), a "free-rider" syndrome ("if enough other people get their kids vaccinated, my kids will be okay"), deep misunderstandings about how vaccines and the immune system work ("vaccines will overwhelm my baby's immune system") and more sadly, to misinformation from medical charlatans and misguided celebrities. The bottom line is that if more people get vaccinated, more will be protected from getting these preventable diseases, but it takes a collective effort. We estimate that depending on the disease, immunization rates of between 85% and 95% are required to develop community immunity. There are still regions in B.C. that fall substantially below these levels.
Vaccines present very, very low risks and provide a great deal of protection against potentially deadly diseases such as pertussis and meningococcal meningitis. For example, there is a one in one million risk of a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine that prevents measles, but the risk of encephalitis to an unvaccinated child or adult who gets this potentially life-threatening disease is over 300 times higher.
British Columbia has a comprehensive immunization program for children, which includes coverage for a wide variety of diseases including measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, meningitis from Haemophilus, meningococcus and pneumococcus, as well as hepatitis, polio, influenza, HPV and more. These vaccines are free and easily available through public health clinics, doctors' offices and school-based programs. By taking advantage of these vaccines, children will be protected against diseases that can cause long-term health problems or even death.
Parents have a duty to be well-informed about care options for their children; we all want the best for our child. It is understandable that we want to make sure that the vaccines our children receive provide the best protection possible and are safe. The good news is that vaccines are among the best regulated, monitored and studied interventions in medicine and there is ample evidence, through legitimate peer-reviewed research, that the vaccines used in B.C. are safe and effective.
To prevent outbreaks like recent ones in B.C., all of us need to ensure our immunizations are up to date. To eliminate these diseases altogether - as we have done with smallpox - requires a collective effort from all British Columbians. Because of immunization, our children have grown up largely without the devastating effects of some of our most virulent diseases that damaged families just a generation ago; but decreasing immunization rates can put this success at risk. I encourage everyone to learn the facts and get immunized.