The Yukon’s chief medical officer of health says there’s still work to be done to get more people immunized against preventable and potentially deadly diseases.
Dr. Brendan Hanley would like to see an immunization rate around 95 per cent.
According to the national consensus, if those numbers drop below 90 per cent a population is going to be susceptible to a disease spreading, he said.
Currently, the Yukon sits right on that line.
Hanley estimates the Yukon’s immunization rate of pre-Kindergarten children getting the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine is around 89 or 90 per cent.
The rates for the pertussis vaccine, also known as whooping cough, are about the same.
That number gets harder to predict when it comes to older children. With students coming in from outside the territory, it is harder to track their immunizations. But Hanley estimates the numbers are likely about the same.
“It’s pretty good but it could be better,” he said.
There has not been a measles outbreak in the Yukon in more than 20 years.
“But we know measles are literally at our doorstep,” Hanley said.
This week B.C.‘s Fraser Valley declared an end to its measles outbreak.
The outbreak was the largest in decades, with more than 400 cases over four weeks beginning in March.
Yesterday, Alberta health officials declared a measles outbreak in the Edmonton, Calgary and Central Alberta regions.
When people are not getting vaccinated, it might be because they have forgotten or they might be sceptical of the process, Hanley said.
Part of improving immunization numbers is battling “easily available misinformation,” he said.
With that goal in mind the Yukon’s Department of Health and Social Services has launched a new website to give Yukoners science-based information about vaccines and dispel the myths.
Yukonimmunization.ca answers common questions, provides a rundown of the various vaccines and provides scientific statistics and reports.
One of the most common myths is the false idea that vaccines cause autism.
“There really is no debate about it,” Hanley said. “Few things have been pounded to death as much as the supposed link.”
In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a flawed research paper claiming that there was a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism.
The publication that printed it has since retracted the article and Wakefield has had his medical licence pulled.
But the report “did a whole lot of damage,” Hanley said.
Autism is diagnosed around the same time that the vaccine is given, and people are confusing timing with cause and effect, he said.
“The tragedy of the false link is that it has slowed down a lot of research into autism,” he said.
In Ontario, laws require that children and adolescents attending primary or secondary school be appropriately immunized against certain diseases, unless they get an exemption for things like conflicts with religious beliefs.
Laws like that also exist in Manitoba and New Brunswick.
Hanley didn’t go as far as saying he would support something like that in the Yukon.
“I think it’s definitely something we should look at, but ideally in a nationally co-ordinated way,” he said, adding that it’s important to understand how well the programs in other jurisdictions work.
While a law like that could be seen as a personal infringement, Hanley points to rules like the one requiring people wear a seatbelt.
In that case, forcing someone to do something could be seen as infringement. But hard evidence has proven the value of seatbelts.
Hanley said he would be interested in seeing some sort of policy for kids going on school trips overseas, especially if those trips are to places with high disease rates.
“What we should strive for in public health is the best results with the least amount of coercion,” he said.
According to Hanley, the first step is to make sure as much information is available as possible.
While not everyone would die, if they caught the measles, the fatality rate is about 1 in 3,000, he said.
About 1 in 1,000 people will become seriously ill and battle symptoms that can include infection of the brain.
When it comes to whooping cough, infants are most at risk, but they cannot be vaccinated until they are at least two months old. Even then, they’ll need multiple vaccinations.
“If you put enough cases of pertussis together, you get infant death. Which is something no one wants to see,” Hanley said.
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