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Canada's high vaccination rates still need improvement, study finds

Ontario Health Minister George Smitherman announced a free child vaccination program at the Regent Park Community Health Centre in Toronto on June 9, 2004. Nurse Vashti Mascoll immunizes three year old Jordan Liu.

Donald Weber/Globe & Mail

New numbers show close to 90 per cent of Canadian toddlers have been vaccinated against diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella, but health experts say more needs to be done to raise immunization rates.

The 2013 Childhood National Immunization Coverage Survey reported immunization rates among two-year-old children in Canada. Coverage rates for measles, mumps and rubella among the children stood at about 89 per cent, and 91 per cent for polio. Rates for diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus were lower at about 77 per cent, and varicella – or chicken pox – had 73-per-cent coverage.

The latest numbers come at a time when concerns about recent measles outbreaks have made headlines across the country, including an outbreak in Quebec that surged to more than 100 confirmed cases in March.

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The survey also examined parents' attitudes toward immunization and found that 1.5 per cent of the children included in the survey had never had any vaccines. Some children cannot be vaccinated due to other illnesses.

A spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada said in a statement that the study shows the country has "high vaccination coverage rates," but "the results underscore the need for continued attention to issues such as vaccine hesitancy and under-immunization."

Gregory Taylor, Canada's chief public health officer, said that with 5,500 respondents, the survey about children's vaccination status is the largest ever commissioned by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). The previous survey in 2011 involved 400 parents and guardians.

"This is a huge amount of information," he said Tuesday. "So the numbers that have gone out so far are preliminary. They're highlights. We're going to spend a great deal of time in the next little while doing further analysis of the data."

That analysis will look at vaccination data for seven-year-olds, which was also collected by Statistics Canada for PHAC.

Monika Naus, medical director for Immunization Programs & Vaccine Preventable Diseases Service at the BC Centre for Disease Control, said the latest figures show Canada has a lot of work to do.

"We have certainly not seen declining uptake rates, but we also are not seeing increases in uptake rates – and that's the direction we would like to be going. We would like close to 95-per-cent uptake across the board," Dr. Naus said.

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B.C. immunization rates, she said, tend to lag those in Eastern Canada and have been stagnant for the past decade.

Still, Dr. Naus pointed to a measles outbreak last year in B.C.'s Fraser East region that did not spread as a positive sign that most parents are getting their children vaccinated. "I think if we look at our disease rates, we still have good control of vaccine-preventable diseases," she said.

Shelley Deeks, Public Health Ontario's medical director of immunization and vaccine-preventable diseases, said she would also like to see coverage rates increase.

"This is a national estimate, but if I was in Ontario, would I be happy with a coverage estimate [in the 70s]? Absolutely not," she said. "Whenever we have coverage estimates released, we need to use that as an opportunity to communicate how safe and effective vaccines are."

In Ontario, childhood immunization coverage is only tracked among school-aged children. Dr. Deeks said coverage rates in the province have been largely stable, with slight increases and decreases for coverage rates among various vaccines from 2008 to 2013, the most recent data available.

Canada does not have a national vaccine registry, and because provinces administer vaccination programs and gather data on coverage rates differently, a broader picture of vaccination rates can be difficult to determine.

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The national survey also noted coverage rates for the HPV vaccine among teenage girls: Rates stood at 72 per cent for girls aged 12 to 14, and 64 per cent for 17-year-olds.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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