VICTORIA — B.C. is exploring ways to make it easier to get immunized, and may institute a mandatory vaccination registration system in schools, to combat an outbreak of measles.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said Tuesday he hopes to have the school vaccine registry in place for the start of the next school year in September. Although details are still being worked out, he pointed to Ontario’s model of registration in primary and secondary schools.
“One of the useful things about the registry is not what people say, that it’s prescriptive and forces people to do things, but that it informs,” said Dix. “People will learn their child isn’t immunized, and for the most part will get immunized.”
It is law in Ontario for parents to vaccinate their children for measles, diphtheria, tetanus, meningitis, chickenpox and other diseases before attending school, unless they obtain an exemption on medical, philosophical or religious grounds and attend a 30-minute presentation outlining the benefits of vaccines.
However, despite the most strict set of rules in Canada, Ontario’s immunization rate for school-aged children is 91 per cent and still falls short of public health goals of 95 per cent.
Dix stressed B.C. is sticking with voluntary immunization for now.
Doug Strachan, spokesman for the Surrey School District, the largest in B.C., said the district generally defers to the health authority when it comes to issues of public health. However, he did say that the school district and others across the province already collect immunization records when children are registered for kindergarten, although not when they register in higher grades. The records are forwarded to health authorities.
“We don’t anticipate there would be much impact on us,” Strachan said.
B.C. has been wrestling with an outbreak of measles for the past several weeks. There are 14 cases currently in Metro Vancouver, which public health officials have said is a significant outbreak.
In B.C., most children get the vaccination shot for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) at age one, and then a booster shot between the ages of four and six. But it is up to parents to pursue that immunization.
Dix said one of government’s biggest steps will be to make it easier for people to access their immunization records to know what shots they actually received and when.
Dix said there is more than enough measles vaccine for British Columbians and it is already free at most pharmacies, doctor’s offices and public health units.
MLAs at the legislature put aside partisan rhetoric on Tuesday for a serious debate on how to increase immunization levels and vaccine availability. Opposition Liberal MLAs asked Dix for public health material that could be displayed in all constituency offices.
Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, who is a doctor, called for mobile public health units and widespread vaccinations to anyone who might have already been exposed to measles in a process called Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP).
“The obvious thing to do is to put up a sign in front of every pharmacy in British Columbia, saying: ‘If you were in any of the following locations, you may have been exposed. Come on in and get a free immunization,’” Wilkinson said during question period.
“Is the minister prepared to take that retail-level action so that parents can be reassured and have the option to be sure that their child has had the MMR?”
Dix said he is considering that kind of outreach, but is taking advice from the provincial health officer.
“We want to consider all of those options because I think in what is a serious outbreak there is, with the amount of public attention there, it’s natural where there are cases in B.C. now where there is an opportunity to use that momentum to get more people immunized now,” he said.
“We also want to set up systems when there’s not an outbreak to ensure there are fewer outbreaks in the future.”
Vaccination demand is jumping due to the measles outbreak, said Dix. Vancouver Coastal Health said it has distributed 7,000 more MMR vaccines than it normally would at this time of the year. Island Health has seen its measles vaccine demand jump 58 per cent compared to last year. Interior Health has seen a 152 per cent increase for children and adults in the last two weeks for vaccines compared to last year.