That presents a remarkable change, says Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan’s Deputy Chief Medical Health Officer.
“In the past decade or so we only saw one case of measles and that person was exposed while travelling outside the province,” he said. But all six recent cases were contracted locally.
Although immunization is not mandatory in Saskatchewan, Dr. Shahab said that over the past 10 years the rate has remained stable, with 90 per cent of school-aged children inoculated.
However, daycare-aged children are at risk. Immunity requires two doses of vaccine, recommended to be given to children at 12 and 18 months. Dr. Shahab, however, has found parents often defer immunizations until later.
Consequently, only 69 per cent of Saskatchewan’s two-year-olds are protected.
This parallels the situation that led to an outbreak among school-aged children in Quebec last year. It was found that among this hardest-hit group the vaccination rates varied from 63 to 93 per cent.
“I think we are at the margin,” Dr. Shahab said. “If we had a 95 per cent immunization rate, we would be much more confident. So we still have work to do in terms of getting parents to bring their children in at the right time.”
Stressing the importance of immunization to keep measles a disease of the past, he said that “prior to 1970 there would be several hundred hospitalizations and several dozen deaths due to measles in Canada.”
Jill House, a Regina teacher and mother of an 18 month-old, makes sure her daughter's immunizations are up-to-date.
“It is a personal choice, but it concerns me to have a child in a daycare where I don’t know if the kids are vaccinated or what they’ve come in contact with. It just kind of bothers me that they’re putting my kid at risk,” she said.
Although the risk of complications is low, a small group of people avoid all vaccines; one such group is the Canada-wide Vaccination Risk Awareness Network.
A Vancouver spokesperson for the organization pointedly refused to discuss their views. The website says the organization defends a parent’s right to refuse vaccines and promotes alternatives such as herbalism and naturopathy medicine.
Widespread claims linking vaccinations with autism have been decisively disproven.
Dr. Shahab said that in Saskatchewan vaccines are generally very well received and that the delay in immunization is usually because of preoccupation, so he cautions against complacency.
“We tend to forget,” he said, “by living in Canada we are protected by everyone else around us who are vaccinated, but all the diseases are just a flight away.”
Noah S. Wernikowski is a contributing reporter for the University of Regina School of Journalism's 2012 news service for weekly newspapers in Saskatchewan. He is from Regina and has spent 13 weeks in the newsroom of CKOM Newstalk Radio in Saskatoon. He will graduate this spring and then will go to Ghana for an internship with Journalists for Human Rights.