Parents across Waterloo Region are being warned by the public health department to get their children’s immunization records up to date or face seeing them suspended from school on Apr. 6.
More than 10,000 students were sent suspension notices last week and in late 2015. Parents have three weeks to update their records with public health, get them immunized, or provide legal documentation which allows them to be exempted.
Linda Black, manager of Vaccine Preventable Diseases for the region’s public health department, says for over a decade the region has enforced the Immunization of School Pupils Act.
“Last year we did not go to full suspension and there were various reasons, one of which, the act was updated to align better with the publicly funded schedule, so three new vaccines were added. In addition to that we implemented a new information system, in which there were thousands of duplicates that had to be resolved across the province. We couldn’t rely on the accuracy of the data we had until we resolved the duplicates, therefore we couldn’t go to full suspensions,” Black said.
So they sent out notices to all the students in the region whose records were not up to date last year, but they didn’t suspend them from school. She says this year they’re in a position to go back to their previous process where they can suspend kids from school.
They started mailing notices to elementary students in October and followed that up with notices to secondary students in December.
“The reason we go through this process every year is it’s important for public health to have accurate records. Why that’s important is if there was an outbreak in a school we would know who is up to date and who is not. Those who are not would be excluded from the school for the duration of the outbreak so that they’re not getting sick and spreading disease in the community,” Black said.
She says they’ve seen whooping cough this year, and at other times measles. They like to remind parents about the need to immunize because sometimes it gets forgotten. It’s easier to remember when the child is a baby and they’re visiting the doctor every couple months for a check-up.
“But after that timeframe then the next one isn’t until they’re four to six and people often forget and then the next one is 14-16. Well there’s one in there at Grade 7 now that’s mandatory. It’s a good reminder to make sure that you update your immunization because people do forget.”
Parents who choose not to have their children immunized need a formal exemption on file. An exemption can be in the form of a medical exemption that’s signed by a doctor. The other exemption is a philosophical or religious exemption and those are people who will not immunize their children due to religion or other beliefs. They still have to get the form signed, notarized, and sent back to public health.
Students who fail to get immunized or provide an exemption will not be allowed to attend school for up to 20 days or until they get the appropriate documentation or immunization.
“What typically happens is on suspension day if the numbers are 100 for example – they’re usually higher than that – usually we see a huge decrease that first day because people are scrambling. We go down to maybe 40, 30 kids after that first day and then it goes down after that. So by the end of the suspension week we only have a handful of kids left. Parents are anxious to get their kids back in school by that point,” Black said.
While they don’t have a breakdown of how many students are at risk of suspension at each school, she says that’s something they could potentially look at in terms of putting some more resources into a certain area.
“I think the important message is that it’s still an awareness that the parents need to call us every time they update their immunizations. Every time they get a new immunization they need to call public health so that we can keep our records up to date. And the doctors don’t do that, we don’t currently have the system that links all our electronic medical records so that it’s automatically updated. It is an extra step for parents, we recognize that. The province is working on a solution. In the meantime we still do need them to call us and let us know every time their child is immunized,” Black said.