Written by By Siobhan Donnan, CNN
Toronto is breaking out a big blue “V” in its efforts to bring the city’s rates of kids aged 6 to 17 who are vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) in line with the national average.
In an effort to combat childhood vaccination rates, an anti-vaxxer movement has gained momentum in the United States. While there’s no scientific evidence that the vaccine causes neurological complications or autism, the belief persists, and the Trump administration is currently considering loosening vaccination rules for school-aged children, officials say.
In response, Toronto “V”s will be displayed in some school buildings throughout the city, signifying the need for parents to get their children vaccinated.
The campaign was launched last week and is being run by The Vaccinology Network, a non-profit organization that encourages Canadians to get their children vaccinated. The nonprofit is a co-signatory of the Toronto MLA Act of 2019 , which introduces new regulations on vaccinating children.
The Canadian government is working to boost vaccination rates in key areas around the country, including urban centers like Toronto.
“I don’t know any parent who wouldn’t want their child to get vaccinated,” Dr. Nancy Whitfield, the chief pediatric officer at Public Health Ontario, tells CNN. “My instinct is if we can make sure people are aware of the facts and the social license for the vaccine, people will take it on.”
“You have the opportunity in that population to spread your message,” Whitfield adds. “You can use your position as a health care provider, you can use your position as an advocate, that you’re getting those children immunized. And then, it helps spread the virus so that you’re decreasing the number of cases.”
Toronto the difficult city?
One recent survey from Pew Research Center found that 36% of Canadians believe vaccines are unsafe or don’t work, with 33% believing that vaccinations cause autism.
Whitfield says the perception of Toronto as a difficult city to live in has seeped into the public health system’s messaging.
“I think for the longest time our message was ‘living in Toronto, do you want your child growing up and living in the most beautiful city in the world? Do you want your child to grow up in a great school, and do you want that city to be safe?’ The reason for that, is that some people see it as a scary place to live.
“The reality is that life is hard in every city, and in this case it’s even harder in our city. We have high crime rates, and high childhood mortality rates.”
Canada has some of the highest rates of childhood vaccine refusal in the developed world. Only 49% of kids in Canada ages six to 17 received the MMR immunization in 2017, according to a study from McGill University.
Whitfield admits Toronto’s 10% refusal rate is “minuscule” compared to those in more restrictive countries.
“The thing that’s very concerning is that we see an increase in rate of refusal each year,” she says. “I have been a physician for 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything as high as that.”
Safety concerns over potential risks
The World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Public Health England recommend that all children receive the MMR vaccine by age two, according to the WHO.
“The evidence for the safety of MMR is robust,” Whitfield says. “The decision to vaccinate is a personal one. Certainly, there are lots of information sources and lots of methods you can use to do that.”
“What you can do is talk to your doctor and ask them to check the computer every 30 days to make sure their records are current,” she adds. “And you can speak to your child’s healthcare provider and explain why you want them to be vaccinated, and they can help you address the needs of the child and the parents.”
Whitfield says she hopes the campaign will “help the message across the country.”