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Opinion Don’t put anti-vaccine messages in my kid’s lunch box

Vardit Ravitsky is an associate professor of bioethics at School of Public Health, University of Montreal

If you found a publication in your kid’s school bag, sent by the school, would it be reasonable for you to assume that its content is endorsed by the school that sent it? Or at the very least approved?

A few weeks ago, I found a glossy magazine called Le Droit (“Family” edition) in my son’s bag – thrown between lunch leftovers, some art work and other school documents. Colourful and sleek, it caught my attention. To my great surprise, a lead article featured on the cover was titled: For and Against Vaccination.

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I was startled. Doesn’t the school support the policies of Canadian public health agencies that promote vaccination? In light of clear scientific evidence and government guidance, why does the school legitimize anti-vaxxers by presenting vaccination as a topic open to debate? What impact can such framing have on parents who are vaccine-hesitant? What next, I thought – an article titled For and Against Smoking?

But my surprise turned to anger once I started reading the article. It was extremely biased in favour of anti-vaccine messages. I put on my researcher hat and performed a content analysis.

The “for” section had half the number of words of the “against” section. The article did not contain information about the medical or public health benefits of vaccination. It did tell parents about vaccine exemption options. The “against” section included “common reasons parents refuse or delay vaccination,” which contained scientifically false statements about the harms of vaccines. The images used to illustrate the article were typical anti-vax: a big scary needle and a child afraid of a shot.

The article failed to report that reduced vaccination rates currently result in the re-emergence of preventable infectious diseases, leading to children suffering serious diseases and some even dying. It made no mention of the overwhelming consensus among health-care professionals and organizations, nationally and internationally, regarding the benefits of vaccination. Nor did it discuss the fact that the research regarding the link between vaccination and autism was fraudulent and that all scientific publications on this topic have been retracted.

Vaccination is the greatest medical and public health achievement of humanity to date. But Canadian children can still be at risk when vaccination rates drop and herd immunity is weakened by parents deciding not to vaccinate. And when this happens, the ones who pay the price are kids with compromised immune systems and other vulnerable members of our communities.

Canada has one of the lowest child-vaccination rates in the developed world with about one in 10 Canadian children currently not vaccinated. Pro-vaccine messages should be delivered by our schools loud and clear.

A school should not distribute a publication to thousands of homes without assuming responsibility for its content, precisely because it is perceived by parents as being endorsed or at least approved by the school. Check the content or stop distributing this journal, was my message in an e-mail to my child’s school board. But despite multiple exchanges, the French Public Schools Council of Eastern Ontario refused to do either. The board responded politely that they are not involved in the choice of content or in the writing of articles, and that the partnership with Le Droit gives students access to French media in classrooms. The board also buys advertisements in the publication.

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Slipping unapproved materials in with your kid’s lunch box is irresponsible and ethically unacceptable. School boards must stop this practice. It potentially exposes children and parents to a variety of questionable messages and, in the case of vaccination, it can actually cost lives.

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