Canada on the whole has been successful at bringing immunization to the populace, but there are some wrinkles that we still need to iron out. “Our uptake rates are generally quite high, though our under-two infant immunization rates are not as good as they should be,” says Dr. Shelly McNeil, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Nova Scotia Health Authority. “That, to some extent, reflects choice by parents, but also represents lost opportunities in clinics due to misunderstandings. We certainly have room for improvement.”

Hesitancy and barriers to access

“There has been a change in the last ten years,” says Dr. Noni MacDonald, Professor of Paediatrics and former Dean of Medicine at Dalhousie University. “There’s been a decrease in medical exemptions, meaning that fewer and fewer kids have a real medical reason why they shouldn’t get a vaccine. At the same time, more parents are asking for non-medical exemptions or hesitating about immunization.”

This hesitancy often stems from an imperfect knowledge of the safety of vaccines. There can be negative reactions to vaccines, but these rarely go beyond a mild fever or irritation of the injection site. “The vaccines that are used and recommended in Canada have all been demonstrated to be safe and effective,” says McNeil. “When people know and understand the true side effect profiles of vaccines, they are usually very accepting.”

“The doctors said she had a 10 percent chance of surviving the night, they said she was the sickest anyone could ever be and was on the most life support anyone could ever have."

Unfortunately, even when people are eager to be vaccinated, the system does not always make it easy. Though the National Advisory Committee on Immunization makes nationwide recommendations, every province and territory implements its vaccination schedule differently, resulting in unequal access. Not only do the available vaccines vary from province to province, but families that move from one province to another can easily end up with gaps in their immunization due to conflicting schedules. This leaves Canadians at risk from vaccine-preventable diseases that can be permanently debilitating or even fatal.

Putting a face on vaccine-preventable disease

Kate Healy of Guelph, Ontario, is a living testament to the power of medicine. Now a student at the University of Guelph, she nearly lost her life at the age of 16 when she developed meningitis B. “The doctors said she had a 10 percent chance of surviving the night,” recalls Kate’s mother Glenda. “They said she was the sickest anyone could ever be and was on the most life support anyone could ever have. We were in shock. There’s no way to comprehend how something like this happens.”

Kate’s recovery has been gruelling, requiring extensive therapy and ongoing surgeries continuing into this year. “It was really emotionally draining and physically draining,” she says. “It took a long time to regain my strength.”

And Kate is one of the luckiest ones. Many who develop meningitis B lose limbs, their vision, or even their lives. When Kate fell ill, there was not yet a vaccine for this strain of meningococcal disease, the most prevalent in Canada, but one has since been developed and approved. In Ontario the vaccine is funded, but only for those at highest risk. Kate hopes to see this availability expanded: “I can’t imagine people having to go through that unnecessarily when there is in fact a vaccine that can prevent meningitis B.”

Stories like Kate’s, which she is valiantly sharing through advocacy work that has included collaborating with renowned photographer Anne Geddes, carry the strongest potential to change minds and policies in Canada. For so many, the consequences of vaccine-preventable diseases are invisible, a testament to the strength of immunization. “When I was young I knew a girl in my kindergarten class who got polio and then came back a year later in a wheelchair,” recalls MacDonald. “I will never forget that for the rest of my life, even though I was only five years old. But my children have never seen anyone that’s their peer with polio.”

If we can fight apathy and raise awareness about the importance of vaccination in Canada, that will be an important first step towards creating a nationwide action plan that will ensure equal protection for all Canadians.