Skip to main content

From Prince Edward Island to British Columbia, doctors across Canada are grappling with a highly infectious disease the likes of which they've never seen before: measles.

Measles was supposedly stamped out years ago, along with whooping cough, polio and other nasty maladies. But now it's made a comeback, thanks to people who don't believe in vaccinations. France, northern England and Wales have all been hit with serious measles outbreaks. Wales alone has had 1,200 cases since November of last year, mostly among children and adolescents under 18. Dozens more cases have appeared in pockets of the United States.

Canada has recorded about 30 cases in 2013, including eight in B.C. since June. "It's been three years since we have seen measles in B.C.," Dr. Paul Martiquet of the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority told Canadian Press.

The modern anti-vaccination scare began in the late 1990s, when a British physician named Andrew Wakefield began warning people that the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) causes autism in children. Medical experts refuted his claims, but parents panicked. Vaccination rates in Britain sank from 92 per cent to 73 per cent. Dr. Wakefield's research has since been widely condemned as a giant fraud, and many of the current crop of measles victims were never vaccinated because of him.

In Canada, the good news is that the new infections have been imported from elsewhere, either from infected people who travelled to Canada and passed it along, or from Canadians who were infected abroad. The bad news is that Canada's vaccination rate is just 85 per cent – lower than it should be to confer population immunity. Our worst recent outbreak occurred in 2011, when 725 people came down with it in Quebec.

Even though Dr. Wakefield was thoroughly disgraced, anti-vaxxers aren't hard to find. Plenty of chiropractors, homeopaths and other practitioners of "natural" medicine believe vaccines are unnecessary or dangerous. Activist-actress Jenny McCarthy (the new girl on The View) has been waging a high-profile war on childhood vaccines for years. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmental activist, is another anti-vax crackpot. He's claimed that we're poisoning our children with thimerosal, a preservative in vaccines, and that a vast conspiracy of government agencies has covered up the truth.

Some anti-vaxxers belong to fringe religious groups. But some are highly educated, hyper-vigilant, holistically minded parents who believe the environment is full of toxic substances that are potential threats to their children. Some think the medical establishment has no right to tell them what to do.

"Measles is not a life-threatening disease," goes one typical online comment. "Parents have every right not to vaccinate their children, especially when big pharma still uses toxins such as mercury (still in flu shots) and aluminum (still in most infant/child vaccines)." These people get plenty of affirmation on the Internet, which is a bottomless cornucopia of junk science and scare stories.

It's true that measles rarely kills. But it can have serious side effects, including deafness and pneumonia. It travels the globe at the speed of airplanes. It is also easy to prevent and totally unnecessary. In some countries, and also some Canadian provinces, you have to get your kids vaccinated or else they can't go to school. Good idea. As we learned with seat belts, a little coercion can be a good thing.