No plans to see students prove immunization record in Nunavut: health minister
“We’re following the letter of the law … that we’re not infringing upon peoples’ human rights”
Nunavut finally has a way of electronically tracking childhood immunizations, but children entering the territory’s school system still won’t have to prove they have been protected against measles and other infectious diseases.
That’s the takeaway from an exchange in the legislature on Wednesday, May 29, between Nunavut Health Minister George Hickes and former health minister Pat Angnakak, the MLA for Iqaluit-Niaqunnguu.
The discussion took place against the background of an increased number of measles cases in Canada, with more than 50 cases reported by Quebec, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, Ontario, Alberta and New Brunswick.
In response to questioning from Angnakak, Hickes said Nunavut plans to “continue with our immunization program as it has been going.”
This means children are assessed when they are entering daycares, but not when they enter school, he said.
Nunavut is worried that making immunization mandatory could be a human rights violation, Hickes said.
Ontario and New Brunswick have already moved in that direction, asking for proof of immunization from all entering students.
But Hickes said Nunavut wants to make sure immunizations are available and, at the same time, “to make sure that we’re following the letter of the law to make sure when we mandate something, that we’re not infringing upon people’s human rights.”
Children in Nunavut get a measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox vaccination at 12 months and then again at 18 months.
But the transition away from paper records is so recent that it seems clear that there can be no way to know exactly which children, or how many, have received immunizations.
A 2013 National Immunization Survey found a 61 per cent to 78 per cent immunization rate in Nunavut, but these numbers were based on the parents’ reports.
That falls short of the level of protection required to prevent a measles outbreak: health experts are in agreement that measles will spread unless about 95 per cent of the general population is immune.
That’s why the Canadian Pediatric Society said in 2018 that provinces and territories should be required to establish electronic immunization registries, with online records for all children being readily accessible to health care providers, and parents should be notified automatically when their child is overdue for an immunization.
“Providing accurate immunization records should be mandatory for school entry,” the society said. “Such records are invaluable for public health authorities when outbreaks occur.”
It also recommends a school-based immunization program be provided at least once during each school year.
Immunizations are not mandatory in Canada, but proof of immunization is required for children and adolescents to attend school in Ontario and New Brunswick, and other jurisdictions are now looking at changing their policies on immunization.
“We will continue to follow the best practices with immunization of all of our population,” Hickes said, putting the responsibility on Nunavut residents “to make sure you check your immunization schedule to make sure you’ve participated.”