I didn't expect to get so involved in this subject, but our measles outbreak is exposing a host of issues in Canada's public health and politics. If we're having this much trouble containing a familiar disease, how well would we deal with a new virus as contagious as measles and as deadly as H5N1?
Five cases of measles have been confirmed in B.C.’s Fraser Valley – including a child who was taken to hospital. And that’s not the only concern for Canadian health officials.
Prince Edward Island has six cases of the airborne disease. Calgary had four; southern Alberta had 42 going back to last fall. Ottawa has two, while Toronto issued a vaccination warning to anyone travelling to the Philippines, where as many as 24 children have reportedly died of the virus.
In Manitoba, health officials are warning that a man with the highly contagious disease is in hospital after attending several public places.
The return of the disease in Canada has health-care officials preparing for the worst. They’re convinced the virus has been imported by those who have visited measles-infected countries such as the Philippines and Netherlands, and then returned to Canadian communities where immunization rates are low.
Canada has a vaccination rate of approximately 95 per cent, although there are regions where that number has fallen well below 50 per cent. Complacency, fear and religious beliefs have all played a role.
“This is a classic example of slipping behind the optimal immunization rate,” said Dr. Glen Armstrong, head of the University of Calgary’s department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases. “People who are not immunized travel and they’re bringing the virus back to Canada with them … And this is what happens when you do. It spreads.”
The Fraser Valley outbreak is a prime example of how the virus gains a foothold and circulates. Two students from the Mount Cheam Christian School in Chilliwack contracted the disease and were sent home – but not before exposing others.
More than 100 students are suspected of having the disease. School officials shut the school a week early for March break. Chilliwack is located in the “Bible belt” of the valley, where members of the Reformed Congregation of North America do not believe in vaccinations.
“Members of our congregation do not believe vaccinations are safe,” Rev. Adriaan Geuze told the CBC. “They are worried about administering vaccines to our children and vaccination does not automatically mean you are immune to the disease.”
That same response was heard in Coaldale, the epicentre of the southern Alberta outbreak. A student at the Coaldale Christian School brought the virus home after visiting the Netherlands. Many in the area near Lethbridge went to the mobile vaccination stations to get immunized; others were afraid of the vaccine’s side effects or declined because of religious convictions.
Unfortunately for those living in the Fraser Valley, this much is beyond debate: The virus has jumped from the religious community to Chilliwack’s general population and to the nearby municipality of Agassiz. One child was admitted to hospital; there’s no word on his or her condition.
Vaccination clinics in Chilliwack and Agassiz will be established next week and there is also a plan to distribute more vaccines to doctors and pharmacies in other parts of the Fraser Valley (Abbotsford, Mission, Hope and elsewhere).