Despite a lull in Alberta’s measles battle, Dr. Jim Talbot keeps a nervous pulse on the province’s viral barometer.
After 75 reported cases of the deadly condition in Alberta since 2011, none have surfaced so far this year.
But that’s only of limited comfort to the province’s chief medical officer of health, who’s not only battling the infectious disease but an allergy among some Albertans to accepting vaccinations.
“The year is incomplete, we’ll have to wait and see what it looks like,” said Talbot.
That concern comes from the fact measles — sidelined in Canada and the U.S. 15 years ago — has reappeared after being re-introduced from other lands by travellers.
That’s coincided with a controversy over the merits of immunization that’s gone viral and led, say many health officials, to fertile ground for infection.
In Alberta, outbreaks spawned by globetrotting re-introductions weren’t prevented and in containing them, “there was a mobilization of a lot of resources,” adds Talbot.
“To become measles free, we’re going to have to get back to the point where we have less chance of transmission.”
The province says it’s spent $3 million on vaccine to fight measles since 2011, not to mention further costs in delivering them.
Talbot and his partners with Alberta Health Services (AHS) have cast their eyes south, to the U.S. and California in particular where an outbreak of about 100 measles cases has erupted and spread to more than two dozen states.
Small measles outbreaks have also been suspected this week in Toronto and Montreal.
Earlier this week, AHS sent a letter to parents urging them to inoculate their kids against the sickness, especially if they have plans of heading to southern California for a spring vacation.
Talbot and medical colleagues say they’re up against another foe — ignorance and anti-vaccine activism — that’s even split the U.S. along ideological and political lines.
The resulting uncertainty over the safety of vaccines that’s crystallized in the belief the measles, mumps, rubella formula (MMR) can spur autism had led to falling immunization rates in the U.S.
Some in the pro-vaccine camp compare that rebellion against accepted science to the widespread rejection of human-induced global warming and fluoridated water.
Talbot admits the enduring link between MMR and autism, even after being repeatedly debunked, is frustration that defies compelling argument.
“If you give them more evidence, not only does it not change their views, it hardens them … there are a hard core that are immune to facts,” he said.
But in Alberta, the measles immunization rate hasn’t greatly fluctuated, at 88% in 2003 and 85.7% for the past two years, said the physician, adding he’s reasonably satisfied with those numbers.
Pushing that over the 90% mark would make heading off outbreaks dramatically easier, he said.
In the Calgary area, 2-3% of parents are solidly anti-vaccine — a number that also hasn’t budged much, said Dr. Judy Macdonald, Calgary medical officer of health for AHS.
“There are some communities that are more anti-vaccine,” said Macdonald, who wouldn’t elaborate, though religious belief has been known to be a factor.
Some parents will simply delay immunizing children while others notice non-severe adverse effects and hold off on further shots, she said.
It was only last September when the AHS, buffeted by such hesitancy, provided a website to provide answers to parents.
Those are stop-gap measures, says Heather Fraser, who claims her son’s severe nut allergy was brought on by a multi-purpose vaccine called Penta 20 years ago.
People posing serious concerns are ridiculed, sloughed off and even turned away by physicians, she said.
“There is accusation and condemnation in doctors’ offices, but we’re still here because of what we’ve been through,” said Fraser.
Relevant information on the risks of vaccines isn’t readily available, she says, adding “doctors overlook the history that takes place” with vaccines and the injuries they inflict.
The manufacturer of Penta, she said, took the drug off the market three years after its introduction, backing up her contentions.
It had been improperly rushed into use, reflecting a greedy recklessness among the pharmaceutical industry enabled by government that’s been repeated many times, said Fraser.
“There is no legal framework in this country to support you if you suffer these injuries, you are responsible to absorb the cost,” she said.
Alberta Health’s Talbot was reluctant to comment on accusations of corporate-government malfeasance but said on balance, the vaccination movement has proven itself to be overwhelmingly beneficial.
“There might have been situations with drugs that weren’t scrupulous but if it’s not safe, we’re transparent about it,” he said.
“California is being put to the same test we went through in 2013-14 and that’s a measure of how well the public health system is working in southern Alberta.”
Health authorities say vaccines have prevented about 15.6 million deaths from 2000 to 2013.
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Rob Evans admits some would consider his refusal to vaccinate his children ironic given his livelihood.
As Chief of the Redwood Meadows Fire Dept., he’s charged with protecting his community — at the same time he’s accused of exposing other parents children to infection disease.
“People have told me ‘it’ll be your fault if it spreads,’” said Evans.
“But we all have our own life experience.”
Evans said that experience turned to shock and fear when vaccinations including the MMR serum was followed by a severe physical reaction in his daughter Michaela, now eight.
“She was happy and playing and meeting all of her benchmarks for infants,” he said.
“The next day she was upset with diarrhea, she started to lose all signs of eye contact, it was a visible change … she lost all the progress she’d made.”
He said research showing a link between MMR and autism the scientific community insists is faulty or debunked shouldn’t be discounted.
“There’s nothing out there that says the shots weren’t a trigger, the doctors won’t say what causes it,” he said.
After Michaela’s ordeal, Evans said he forbade any more shots for her and two older brothers, and even had a vasectomy to avoid having to make that decision again.
And he rejects a guilt trip of endangering other kids by saying the chances of outbreaks are puny, with ones currently erupting in the U.S. a drop in their population bucket.
“We’re talking 105 cases in over 300 million people … fear mongering isn’t what they’re trying to do, but that’s what’s happening.”
Evans said he accepts vaccines have saved millions of lives and calls himself a pro-choicer rather than an anti-vaxxer.
“We’re not going to say ‘don’t vaccinate your kids,’” he said.
Autism families have good reason to suspect immunization, says activist Heather Fraser, who claims her son’s severe nut allergy was brought on by an injection 20 years ago.
“I don’t disagree with them at all, I sympathize with them,” said Fraser with the group Vaccine Choice Canada.
“They’re choosing not to vaccinate in larger and larger numbers and it’s scaring public health and drug manufacturers.”
But Fraser’s colleague Edda West said most of those sharing her beliefs are much more reluctant to voice them.
“People are very hesitant to speak to the media because of the intense vilification of people with alternative health philosophies, and the imbalance of reporting overall in mainstream media,” she said.
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The province could make certain vaccinations mandatory for children in extreme outbreak cases, says Alberta’s chief medical officer of health.
Dr. Jim Talbot said he’s discussed the possibility with senior health ministry officials, adding he’d urge immunization be made involuntary if a severe outbreak like measles or diphtheria should occur.
“If we saw problems, I’d be in the front ranks of seeing it mandatory,” he said.
“Diphtheria kills kids, it’s awful and some of these childhood diseases are so serious … making it mandatory, I’d be perfectly comfortable with that.”
Currently, only three provinces — Ontario, New Brunswick and Manitoba — require parents to disclose their childrens’ immunization records to their schools.
That approach, relying on strong encouragement, falls short of a mandatory process and could also be employed in Alberta, said Talbot.
“If there’s a sufficient public outcry, then we would be prepared to implement a policy like the school one,” he said.
“It would be guided by the evidence.”
Currently, about 85% of young children are vaccinated in Alberta for highly infectious diseases like measles.
If that number should fall noticeably, it could endanger vulnerable populations unable to be immunized and possibly trigger tougher measures, said Talbot.
“If it were to dip below 80% over large areas, action could be taken or you could do it over 100% of the province,” he said.
“I don’t want to over-react to the situation, but if it’s not working and disease is causing serious consequences, we do have to look at being more intrusive.”
Those with vaccine allergies or religious objections would be exempt, said Talbot.
Since measles made its return to Alberta in 2011, the province has spent $3 million on vaccine alone to combat it.
Calgary-area dad Rob Evans, who’s foregone further vaccinations for his kids after claiming his daughter’s autism was sparked by one, condemned the notion of mandatory immunizations as authoritarian.
“It’s a parental decision, it has to be,” he said.
“To have the state mandate it is just wrong … we don’t push our beliefs on anyone else just like other people shouldn’t push theirs on us.”
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The white coat tracking the progress of this flu season’s immunization program in Alberta admits the results might not seem a confidence-builder for mass vaccination.
The underwhelming performance of the vaccine to counter this season’s villain flu strain, H3N2, can’t be denied, said the University of Calgary’s Dr. Jim Dickinson.
“It had zero effect, we couldn’t distinguish it from zero,” said Dickinson.
“It’s a bit disturbing and the reason is, the influenza virus keeps on changing — it’s different from the stable viruses like measles, smallpox and mumps.”
A month ago, Alberta Health Services reported that of 23 flu fatalities, 14 of the dead had been vaccinated.
The expectation is that next fall, the main flu culprits will be H1N1 and B strains, for which vaccine is more effective, and that the formula will be tweaked to better-fight H3N2, he said.
Even so, the shot’s effectiveness at best is somewhere between 50% and 70%, said Dickinson.
But those odds are improved enough to surrender to the needle, he insists.
“If it misses it one year, it’s still worthwhile,” said Dickinson, adding a letdown can have a silver lining if acted on properly.
“As Thomas Edison said, we learn more from our errors than our successes.”
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Anti-vaccine stalwarts are akin to a persecuted Galileo, says right-wing political TV host Glenn Beck.
“How many people have lost their jobs, have lost their credibility?” Beck said this month.
“My gosh, we’re living in the days of Galileo.”
Beck’s just one of numerous celebrity vaccine skeptics who’ve emerged to warn of the supposed dangers of immunization — and to attract the hostility of those who insist they’re playing a game of dangerous denial.
Probably the best known and most outspoken of all is actress and one-time Playboy Bunny Jenny McCarthy, whose son’s been diagnosed with autism and insists vaccinations played a hand.
She’s been joined by Canadian-born actor Jim Carrey in a campaign to “green vaccine” by removing “toxins” from them.
It’s a stance that’s ignited a social media and Internet storm of acrimony and accusation, as well as contributing, some fear, to a growing reluctance among parents in some jurisdictions to have their children immunized.
In a sketch-driven video that’s gone viral on YouTube, narrator Rob Schneider calls out what he calls the duplicity of government, the medical establishment and pharmaceutical industry for ignoring the suffering of vaccine-damaged families.
“They thought state sterilization was a great thing,” comedian Schneider says in another video.
“The pharmaceutical industry is doing fine and it’s at the cost of our kids.”
He’s suffered for his opinion, losing an advertising job for State Farm Insurance, while being labelled an “anti-vaccination idiot” on YouTube videos posted next to his own.
And pro-vaccine celebrities have joined the battle, with actresses Sarah Michelle Gellar, Salma Hayek and singer Jennifer Lopez speaking out.
When reminded of the Hollywood assault on the merits of vaccines, Alberta Health Services’ Dr. Judy MacDonald drops the name of a friendlier notable.
“Then there’s Hillary Clinton, who’s spoken up for getting vaccinated,” she says, noting U.S. President Barack Obama has also publicly sided with immunization.
That celebrity attacks on vaccination have fanned reluctance to be immunized are a concern, said Dr. Jim Talbot, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health.
But he said he’s heartened by a backlash that’s seen Republican presidential contenders like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie backtrack on sentiments sympathetic to anti-vaxxers.
“Their campaigns are now in trouble, they’re seen to be so far out of the mainstream,” said Talbot.
On Twitter: @SUNBillKaufmann