A father is calling for mandatory vaccinations and repercussions for those who do not abide after his son, who is a cancer patient, was recently exposed to measles at the Stollery Children’s Hospital.
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Jerry Wrice’s son Liam was diagnosed with brain cancer when he was 10 months old. He is now 15 months and undergoes treatment in Edmonton and Calgary. The family, who is from Fort McMurray, learned he was exposed to the measles at the Stollery on March 13 but said they did not find out until five days later.
“All we know is that someone brought it into the hospital,” Wrice said.
“I was feeling a lot of anger and frustration. Quite frankly, my initial thought is everyone is vaccinated. I was quick to find out that wasn’t the case.”
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While Wrice and his wife are vaccinated, he said Liam wasn’t for several reasons.
“He was diagnosed at 10 months of age [with cancer]. The measles vaccine comes at 12 months so he didn’t have the vaccination. Even if he had, with his cancer treatment, his system would have been wiped clean of any immunity to a vaccination. He depends on the herd immunity of the community as a whole to protect him,” he said.
Wrice has now started an online petition calling for mandatory vaccinations and wants various levels of government to step in so residents can be held liable.
“I feel that a database would be a good start. If we choose not to vaccinate, I think we need to be held accountable to it,” he said.
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He argues that community health trumps personal choice in whether to get vaccinated.
“My biggest thing here is to impact change for the better, to make our country a safer place to be, to protect children that are out there so they don’t have an exposure to this,” Wrice said.
Immunization is not required by law in Canada and it is not mandatory for parents to immunize their children. However, Alberta’s Public Health Act states children and adults who aren’t immunized can be ordered to stay home after being exposed to vaccine-preventable illness.
Ubaka Ogbogu, a law professor at the University of Alberta, said it is time the province thought seriously about establishing a mandatory vaccination regime.
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“You may not agree with the fact that you should wear seatbelts or you should stop at a red light but, because it’s the law, you’re inclined to follow it. I think we need to adopt the same kind of thinking with respect to vaccinations,” he said.
Ogbogu said it is unrealistic for people to think the government should not have the authority to intervene in their health.
“The government does tell you what to do in all kinds of ways. I think people should have a zone of freedom that they can live their lives in but that freedom shouldn’t come at a risk to other people who live in society.”
“Vaccination is one of those things where individual liberties come in conflict with public interest and community interest. It makes perfect sense to say, ‘if you pose a risk to other persons in society then we can use the law as a way to eliminate that risk and to make you conform to standards that would be good to the well-being of everyone.’”
David Evans, the vice-dean of research at the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta, said the past history of virus epidemics demonstrates the power of preventable diseases.
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“Still, the great threat to human economies and health is epidemic diseases and it doesn’t take very much for the safety nets we’ve got, that are built by public health, to fall apart,” he said.
“If we don’t constantly maintain our vigilance to ensure the public is protected by these vaccines, what you will see is what happens when vaccine coverage starts to drop, which is when diseases will come back.”
Calgary-Acadia MLA Brandy Payne, who is the province’s associate minister of health, said a move towards mandatory vaccines is a “really big step for us to take.”
Payne declined to elaborate and explain what is standing in the province’s way. She said emphasis is being placed on making sure people have the right information about vaccines and ensuring vaccines are readily accessible.
However, the provincial immunization policy states the proportion of Albertans getting adequately immunized continues to be below the provincial target.
“As vaccine-preventable diseases are less common now due to the success of immunization, some people have become complacent about immunization,” reads the policy.
But when asked why the province wouldn’t consider mandatory vaccination to improve those numbers, Payne again said the best way to improve rates is to make sure Albertans have the information they need about vaccines.
As for Wrice, he is hoping to collect 100,000 signatures on his petition and wants to set up meetings with the provincial and federal ministers of health.