Ontario’s mandatory class for parents seeking vaccine exemptions has ‘zero conversions’

Parents found it insulting to have the government force them to be ‘re-educated’

To send kids to school without vaccinations, parents in Ontario must first attend a class of their own.

Conducted one-on-one or in groups as large as 50 at their local health units, the mandatory “vaccine education” sessions for parents pursuing exemptions consists mainly of a video screening, with a nurse on hand to answer any questions. The 25-minute government-prescribed film features a cheery musical soundtrack, footage of smiling families and animated characters — kids playing soccer, dogs, a rainbow — along with information to counter popular myths among “anti-vaxxers.”

But since it was introduced in 2017, thousands of mothers and fathers have dutifully watched the video, collected their “Vaccine Education Certificate” — then continued to duck the shots.

That’s not only a colossal waste of time and money, some health policy experts say, but the education sessions may actually entrench resistance among parents claiming exemptions based on religious belief or “conscience.”

Until recently, parents dodging vaccines in Ontario were simply required to submit a sworn affidavit stating their objections. The bar was raised slightly with the amendment of the Immunization of School Pupils Act to require attendance at exemption classes.

Of 314 parents who attended an education session between September 2017 and December 2018 at the Ottawa Public Health unit, for example, only one did not go on to submit a formal exemption form.

To members of Vaccine Choice Canada, a group that believes measles is a “benign and beneficial illness” and that all the fuss over the recent outbreak in Vancouver is artificially hyped hysteria, Ontario’s education sessions are a “joke,” misleading, patronizing and inaccurate.

But Ubaka Ogbogu, a professor of health law at the University of Alberta, disagrees. In his view, vaccination education is a pointless waste of resources. “Education is a tool that should be used in conjunction with a policy that focuses on the best interests of the child,” he says, and that means mandatory vaccinations — “sans” any religious or conscientious objections.

While anti-vaxxers and the “vaccine-hesitant” remain in the minority, nonmedical exemptions have doubled since 1985. Given enough of them, exemptions can seriously undermine herd immunity. Children who are not vaccinated are 35 times more likely to contract measles. They also put kids who cannot be vaccinated — those with cancer, heart or lung diseases, allergies or compromised immune systems — at risk.

The science, as Ogbogu and others point out, is unimpeachable. Vaccination saves lives. “But there is a lack of bravery or even political will to do what’s necessary,” he says. “It boggles my mind.”

Ogbogu believes children should be vaccinated at the earliest age safety allows.

If a parent fails to do so, he says, temporary guardianship could be awarded to a non-objecting family member or to child welfare authorities until the child can be vaccinated and returned home.

A recent poll by Angus Reid also suggests the vast majority of Canadians would be entirely comfortable with compulsory shots for any child attending daycare or school who can safely be immunized. About 70 per cent of respondents across the country agreed with the statement, “vaccinations should be mandatory.”