The fight against measles isn’t over

Measles was among a handful of new diseases that wreaked a terrible toll upon residents of northern Canada during the late 19th and early 20th century.

Measles was among a handful of new diseases that wreaked a terrible toll upon residents of northern Canada during the late 19th and early 20th century, contributing to the abandonment and depopulation of entire communities of First Nations people, who had no acquired immunity to the disease.

Long afterwards, Yukoners – mostly children – continued to be routinely infected by this highly infectious disease. Some would suffer some of its more serious consequences, which include pneumonia, deafness, blindness and brain damage. And some would die.

If the ancestors who once inhabited our territory could know that a safe, effective and inexpensive vaccine would later be developed to prevent this serious disease, allowing our continent to declare itself measles-free by 2002, they would doubtless hail this as a godsend.

Were these same ancestors to learn that some of today’s Yukoners were allowing their children to run the risk of contracting this same disease that was once a scourge of the North, for no other reason than a mixture of indifference, superstition and plain old stupidity, they would be appalled and utterly baffled.

Yet here we are in 2014, with measles reappearing in frightening pockets throughout southern Canada. And there’s no reason why the Yukon couldn’t be hit next.

This risk seems especially real when you consider that the Philippines is currently in the midst of a big measles outbreak, and the Yukon has a large and growing number of residents who hail from that country. Canada has so far seen six cases this year of measles being imported from overseas – all from the Philippines.

It could be worse. The Yukon isn’t home to any large religious community convinced that it’s against God’s will to vaccinate, as some nutters believe in British Columbia, who helped create a big outbreak.

But the problem is a lot bigger than the bizarre belief that God loves the spread of preventable diseases.

There’s a broad complacency about preventable diseases that has set into the Canadian mind, now that many of us aren’t old enough to recall the horror of having to watch small children die from preventable diseases like measles.

Another part of the problem are dangerous ideas being spread online by conspiracy theorists who maintain, against all credible evidence, that vaccines damage the immune system or cause autism. This is, quite simply, bonkers. These ideas have been exhaustively debunked, yet continue to be spread by those who have abandoned science in favour of New Age quackery.

Doubts sewed by conspiracy-mongers may have helped to erode vaccination rates in Canada in recent years. That would help explain why Canada has seen measles cases spike from six in 2006 to 750 in 2011.

Globally, measles was responsible for 2.6 million deaths in the years prior to 1980.

Then an inexpensive and effective vaccine was developed, and a concerted effort was made to vaccinate. It’s estimated that 13.8 million lives – mostly those of children – have been saved since 1990, thanks to the global push to eradicate the disease. That’s a remarkable achievement. It’s to our shame that we could now be seeing a roll-back against such progress.

What could be done to boost vaccination rates? Well, as Chris Selley recently noted in the National Post, in the United States, regardless of the country’s reputation as the land of the free, it’s commonplace for vaccinations to be mandatory for children attending public schools. In Canada, by comparison, only a handful of jurisdictions require children to be vaccinated to attend public school. That may help explain why Canada is seeing outbreaks of preventable diseases so out of whack with what the United States has experienced.

The Yukon’s Department of Health and Social Services, meanwhile, has a stated goal to reach and maintain the national target of 99 per cent two-dose coverage with a measles vaccines at school entry. The most recent numbers from 2012 aren’t terribly precise, saying only that upwards of 90 per cent of Grade 6 Yukon students are currently vaccinated against the disease. But there appears to be a gap between our vaccination rates and our goal, so what’s the plan to close it, beyond the usual, sometimes ineffective, appeals to residents to do the right thing?

If the Yukon’s leaders were actually serious about keeping measles out of the Yukon, they would use the tools at their disposal. Making vaccinations mandatory for children who attend public school would be a good place to start.