Stefania Seccia is a Burnaby, B.C.-based communications adviser
My son Max is blissfully unaware of the danger he is in. He won’t remember his first birthday and for that I am grateful. That’s because he is spending the week he turns 1 in isolation.
I received a phone call on Feb. 15 from my public-health nurse informing me that Max was exposed to the measles virus when we visited BC Children’s Hospital two weeks prior. His first birthday was Feb. 19. His measles vaccination was scheduled for Feb. 21.
His cousins singing Happy Birthday through a sealed sliding glass door is the closest thing to a normal celebration he could have, thanks to the anti-vaccination movement.
Nine cases of the measles virus were reported by Vancouver Coastal Health this month. An extremely contagious airborne virus, measles is nothing to take lightly: It can cause encephalitis, which is brain damage that can lead to deafness, as well as permanent brain damage and even death.
My son was a premature baby and spent the first four weeks of his life with IV needles piercing through his tiny feet and hands in the neonatal intensive care unit. Any parent of a preemie and NICU baby will tell you that they are at highest risk for health concerns.
I won’t know until Feb. 23 if my son has contracted the measles virus. I spent his first birthday watching closely for symptoms. They are innocuous and devious in their subtlety: fever, runny nose, sensitivity to light and red eyes.
And they may not show up for the first 21 days after exposure. This is what makes it an effective and contagious virus. It tricks you into thinking you haven’t contracted anything grave. It lulls you into a false sense of security until the rash shows itself and spreads over your body. Then, quietly, it can consume you, even if you’re healthy.
When I received the phone call that my son was exposed to the measles virus weeks before I could get him vaccinated, I was filled with worry, fear, anxiety and outrage. What parent, guardian or caregiver wants to hear that their infant could have this horrible disease? What parent wants to hear that her high-risk baby could possibly die when she should be celebrating a milestone of his short life?
When I found out that my son was exposed to the virus because of a parent who believed anti-vaxxer propaganda, I could not stay silent. There are many Metro Vancouver children at risk right now because of Emmanuel Bilodeau’s decision, along with his wife at the time, to not vaccinate their children. One of their three sons contracted the measles virus on a trip to Vietnam earlier this year and brought it back with him unknowingly.
Mr. Bilodeau publicly came forward right as I received the phone call that my son was exposed, explaining that they decided not to vaccinate their children 10 years ago because of a now-debunked study linking the MMR vaccine (which protects against measles, mumps and rubella) to autism. He conveniently left out the fact the U.S. Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and the government of Canada, as will any travel clinic, recommend all routine vaccinations, which include the MMR vaccine, be up to date when travelling to Vietnam. I know this for a fact. When my husband and I travelled to the country in 2015 for our honeymoon, he received the booster despite being vaccinated as a child (we just didn’t have the documents to prove it).
So this wasn’t just the result of a decision he made a decade ago. It wasn’t that long ago at all. His choice, then and now, could very well ruin my son’s life – or end it.
Mr. Bilodeau seemingly implied in media interviews that BC Children’s Hospital was to blame for not making a correct diagnosis quickly enough; this is another point that I could not allow to dominate the narrative, not when my son’s life was on the line, the second time in his short life.
My son was diagnosed with pyloric stenosis when he was seven weeks old. BC Children’s Hospital performed surgery on him and saved his life right in time: He had lost 800 grams, was dehydrated to the point where he needed two IVs and couldn’t keep any food down. The hospital was the only one to diagnose and act.
Our health-care providers can only do so much. As Althea Hayden, a medical health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health said at a recent news conference about this very issue: “What I will tell you is that we take incidents like this very seriously and we are working with our colleagues at Children’s Hospital to do a review of what happened to see if we could have done something differently, could have identified those cases earlier and could’ve avoided the exposures that occurred.”
But let’s be clear: The exposure happened because the infected child’s parents didn’t vaccinate their children against a highly contagious and deadly virus. The exposure is the fault of the anti-vaccination movement.
I come forward not to appeal to anti-vaxxers. They are not my target. I want my experience to catch the attention of the leaders in my province.
Vaccinations should be mandatory. If you want to send your child to any school receiving public funding, they should be vaccinated. This should not be controversial. Vaccinations are the reason we have eradicated viruses such as measles in the first place. We should not be allowing a vocal and ill-informed few to dictate public health.
We can’t bring peanuts to school, but we can risk tetanus? Measles? Hepatitis?
We are so privileged to live in a country providing easy access to vaccinations. We must not let blind ignorance get in the way of our children’s health.