Gloria Dignazio isn’t swayed by the heavy weight of scientific evidence that suggests vaccines have nothing to do with autism. After seeing her first daughter develop the condition in the wake of receiving an array of needles, she made sure her youngest would never be immunized.
“I’m not scared of my children getting any diseases,” said the Winnipeg legal assistant. “I’m scared of the vaccine. They’re man-made concoctions that are injected straight into the blood stream.”
Ms. Dignazio represents a surprisingly large chunk of Canadians who have turned their back on immunization despite its reputation as one of history’s great public-health successes. Figures obtained by the National Post suggest tens of thousands of parents exempt their children from various shots.
That attitude has come into sharp focus lately, after a large outbreak of measles in British Columbia was linked to a Dutch Reform congregation whose pastor says vaccines interfere with God’s will. Less well known is that a widespread whooping-cough outbreak in southern Ontario in 2012 originated among low-German Mennonites, who similarly spurn immunization.
Whether the ranks of such refuseniks are expanding is unclear, but the phenomenon of “vaccine hesitancy” has seized the attention of public-health experts, who worry that immunization programs are at risk after all but wiping out a long list of childhood diseases.
“It’s very concerning,” said Dr. Monika Naus, medical director of immunization with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. “That’s our No. 1 issue in immunization.… There is a lot of discussion now about vaccine hesitancy and how we can turn that tide around.”
Officials’ tactics include moving beyond the grey facts and answering emotional testimonials from anti-vaccination groups with mirror-image narratives: the stories of people who have lost loved ones to vaccine-preventable illnesses.
But who are the Canadians rejecting what the medical community considers an unmatched and safe weapon against communicable disease, and how numerous are they?
The motivations range from religious beliefs rooted in the Bible to fears of serious side-effects and distrust of pharmaceutical companies and those considered in cahoots with industry: doctors, public-health officials and governments.