Rona Ambrose is doing a good job with the prickly issue of childhood vaccination. The federal Health Minister was already on the record as saying that "vaccinations are, frankly, miracles of modern medicine." Frankly, she's right. She reinforced the message on Friday, when she declared that every province should make proof of vaccination a requirement for attending school.
Ms. Ambrose hasn't the power to oblige provinces and territories to do her bidding. Health and education are provincial jurisdictions. But her words drive home the seriousness of the issue, and it sets the government's tone in the battle against the ridiculous anti-vaccination movement that is doing so much damage in Canada and around the world.
The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination, as well as routine childhood shots to prevent diphtheria, tetanus, polio, meningitis, whooping cough and chicken pox, has saved the lives of millions of people. And yet a growing number of ill-informed parents in the United States, Canada and elsewhere believe false claims about invented dangers related to vaccinations – claims contradicted by the sheer scale of the numbers of successful vaccinations given versus any associated risk.
Ms. Ambrose's steady drumbeat about the safety and necessity of vaccinations has been an antidote to the anti-vaxxers' nonsense. And now she has raised the stakes, throwing her support behind the school requirement. That's a big step, because it would effectively make vaccinations mandatory.
Is it the right way to go? The provinces will have to decide individually. It's not clear how effective it would be. Ontario and New Brunswick already have the requirement, with exemptions for people who object for reasons of conscience or religion.
Ontario has one of the nation's highest MMR vaccination rates, according to a study by the C.D. Howe Institute. New Brunswick, on the other hand, has one of the lowest. The highest vaccination rates of all are in Newfoundland, where there is no requirement to vaccinate schoolchildren.
Obviously, more work needs to be done before any such policy is adopted across the board. And it would be sad if, ultimately, the only way to achieve acceptable vaccination rates across Canada was through coercion. It would be better to convince reluctant parents that it is in the best interests of their children, and of society at large, to join the current century.
But even a society built around the idea of individual liberty sometimes needs bright-line rules. For example, regardless of your personal views about road design and traffic safety, you don't get to opt out of stopping at red lights. You don't get to the be the one driver driving on the left side of the road. To work for everyone, some rules must apply to everyone. It's useful for Ms. Ambrose to remind anti-vaxxers that society will forcefully protect itself in the end, if that's what it takes.