Students at Ottawa alternative schools have higher rate of non-medical exemptions from vaccines
The number of students who are not vaccinated because of their parents’ beliefs is significantly higher than average at some of Ottawa’s alternative schools, data from the public health department shows.
On average, 1.73 per cent of students at Ottawa’s four school boards were exempted from Ontario’s legal requirement they be vaccinated against childhood diseases after their parents obtained objections for philosophical or religious reasons.
Four of the five schools with the highest philosophical exemption rates in 2018-19 offered alternative education programming.
The highest rate was at the French public school board’s Trille des Bois, a Waldorf school, where 11.26 per cent of students had philosophical exemptions from vaccinations. The school had an enrolment of 553 students.
Next highest was tiny Lady Evelyn Alternative in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, where 10.74 per cent of students had exemptions. Enrolment at the school was 149. The remaining schools in the top five were St. Isidore in the Ottawa Catholic School Board, with 368 students and an exemption rate of 8.15 per cent; Regina Street Alternative school, with 220 students and an exemption rate of 7.73 per cent; and Churchill Alternative school, with 275 students and an exemption rate of 5.82 per cent.
It’s not known why parents of students in those schools were more likely to seek non-medical exemptions against vaccinations. Alternative schools in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board offer child-based learning that emphasizes the value of co-operation, teamwork, multi-age groupings and innovative educational techniques.
The Waldorf philosophy also offers innovative approaches that stress creativity, art, music, embrace of nature and use of natural materials like wood, physical activity and practical skills integrated into the curriculum. The use of technology like computers and television is discouraged for younger children.
Waldorf founder Rudolf Steiner opposed vaccinations and recently some of the schools following his educational philosophy in Europe and the U.S. have been linked with vaccine hesitancy.
Several of the Waldorf schools in California, for instance, had among the lowest vaccination rates in the state, according to a report in The Guardian newspaper earlier this year. That appears to be the result of the beliefs of parents who are attracted to the educational philosophy as opposed to any direction from the schools themselves.
The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America released a statement this year that their educational philosophy does not include “avoidance of, or resistance to, childhood immunization.”
The same trend at alternative schools is at play in Toronto, according to a CBC report that found a dozen alternative schools in the Toronto District School Board had philosophical exemption rates of 10 per cent or higher, compared to a city-wide rate of 1.7 per cent.
Toronto’s chief medical officer of health has raised the alarm about non-medical vaccination exemptions, saying the province should consider ending them to prevent outbreaks of disease.
Ottawa’s medical officer of health has not made any recommendation on the issue.
There has been concern about outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles in pockets across North America. In the first nine months of this year, 1,249 cases of measles were reported in the United States, the highest reported total in a single year since 1992, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Before vaccinations became widely used, about two million people around the world died each year from measles, according to the World Health Organization. It’s still a leading cause of vaccine-preventable death in children and caused 110,000 deaths globally in 2017.
Measles can also cause serious complications, such as blindness, deafness, encephalitis or pneumonia, according to Health Canada.
When vaccination rates in the general population dip too low, the “herd immunity” that protects a community from the spread of those diseases is lost.
In Ottawa, the vaccination rate for school children is relatively high, said Marie-Claude Turcotte, the program manager for the immunization unit at Ottawa Public Health.
Data shows that an average of 90.78 per cent of students in Ottawa’s four school boards were up to date for required childhood vaccinations in 2018-19, according to the agency. Vaccination coverage rates for individual schools ranged from a low of 70 per cent to a high of 95.77 per cent.
The risk of outbreaks of diseases like measles is higher at schools where a higher proportion of children are not vaccinated.
Children who become ill with vaccine-preventable diseases can pass them to others, sometimes before they know they are sick.
People with measles, for instance, can be contagious one day before they display the first symptoms, which typically include fever, runny nose and cough, and four days before the rash appears.
If there was a measles outbreak at a school, children who aren’t vaccinated would be excluded from school for their own protection, Turcotte said.
Since 2017, Ontario parents who seek philosophical exemptions for their children are required to attend information sessions meant to ensure they have the facts about vaccinations.
In Ottawa, the vast majority of parents who attended education sessions did not immediately change their mind on the issue, according to Public Health data. In 2018, for instance, 234 parents attended the session, which includes a video provided by the Ministry of Health and the chance to pose questions to a nurse. Only two of those parents did not submit an application for an exemption. In 2017, 91 parents completed the education and all of them requested the exemption.
However, those numbers might be misleading. Some parents at the information session are seeking more time to consider the issue, Turcotte said. They may decide later to have their children vaccinated.
Children are required to be vaccinated against nine childhood diseases. Parents can ask for a philosophical exemption for any or all of the vaccinations.
Children can also be exempted from vaccination for medical reasons, such as an allergy to components in the vaccines or because they have a compromised immune system.
On average, 1.33 per cent of children at Ottawa’s four school boards had medical exemptions, Ottawa Public Health said.
The agency also released overall data on private schools in Ottawa, with the percentage of students with philosophical exemptions from vaccinations was 3.63 per cent in 2018-19.
It is not known whether the number of parents requesting philosophical exemptions from vaccinations is rising, since Public Health has only one snapshot of data from the 2018-19 school year.