Toronto Public Health calling on province to end non-medical exemptions for vaccines in schools

Toronto’s medical officer of health is calling on the province to stop allowing children in Ontario schools to skip vaccines for non-medical reasons amid rising concern over vaccine hesitancy.

In a new report released on Monday, Dr. Eileen de Villa recommends health minister Christine Elliott consider removing philosophical and religious exemptions under the Immunization of School Pupils Act — and only accept medical exemptions from a certified health-care provider.

“Before philosophical and religious exemption rates reach dangerously high levels in Toronto, it is important and timely for the provincial Ministry of Health to consider removing philosophical and religious exemptions from its legislation,” de Villa wrote in the report.

It’s a controversial suggestion that comes against a backdrop of plummeting vaccination rates in areas around the world and instances of disease outbreaks in cities across Canada and the United States.

For Toronto students, there has been steady increase in philosophical and religious exemptions over the last decade and a bit, de Villa notes. Those increased from 0.8 per cent for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine in the 2006 to 2007 school year to 1.72 per cent last year.

Stateside, rising non-medical exemption rates have led to major outbreaks of multiple vaccine-preventable diseases such as whopping cough and measles.

This year alone, more than 1,200 cases of measles have been confirmed in 31 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — the highest number of cases reported in the U.S. since 1992.

“The majority of cases are among people who were not vaccinated against measles,” the CDC noted.

‘No plans’ to update approach: health ministry

But a spokesperson for Elliott’s office said there are “no plans” to update the province’s approach.

Currently, under the Immunization of School Pupils Act, children are required to have proof of immunization for certain diseases to attend school in Ontario, unless there is a “valid medical exemption or affidavit of conscience or religious belief,” the health ministry’s Travis Kann noted in a statement.

Since 2017, parents have been required to complete an education session before submitting a request for a non-medical exemption.

De Villa agrees education is crucial.

“Vaccine hesitancy, the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines, is a growing concern in Canada,” she wrote in the report. “It stems, in large part, from misinformation about vaccines that spreads on social media platforms and the Internet.”

Her other recommendations include calling for major online media companies — including Facebook, Google and Twitter — to better regulate vaccine misinformation.

She also calls on the board of health to request all Toronto school boards and the Ministry of Education to adopt curriculum on vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases for all elementary schools.

Her recommendations will be considered by the board on Sept. 23.

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