Workplace safety in the Digital Era never fails to yield surprising twists and turns. The measles outbreak in Canada presents not only a public-health risk, but also threatens those who work in healthcare. Teachers and staff who are employed in educational institutions also face exposure risk since the outbreak is largely triggered by patchy vaccination rates among school-age children and teenagers.
According to the federal government’s weekly surveillance reports on measles and rubella, Canada has 45 reported cases of measles as at the end of April. The outbreak is so concerning that the University of Toronto launched The Centre for Vaccine Preventable Diseases — the first academic centre of its kind in the country to focus on the public perception of vaccines and exploring ways to boost vaccination rates.
The United States is not spared from the outbreak either. In the first five months of this year, there were more than 800 confirmed cases south of the border — the highest in 25 years.
The vaccine hesitancy can be traced back to a fraudulent paper published in 1998 in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet. Andrew Wakefield, a discredited former British doctor, had falsely linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism. Although the journal retracted the paper 12 years later, the misinformed view has taken on a life of its own and gained acceptance by the public typically through social media, according to a 2018 paper on anti-vaccination attitudes published in the Missouri Medicine Journal.
Aside from posing a health hazard, workplace violence is also a spin-off risk of this outbreak. The anti-vaccination camp has acquired a touch of militancy reminiscent of those demonstrated by some anti-abortionist groups: two Canadian doctors have received email threats from individuals for encouraging vaccination.
In an age where information travels at the click of a mouse and self-publishing means that information — credible or otherwise — can sprout from any corner, fake news can spread like cancerous cells. The measles outbreak in North America is an unnerving example of how misinformation can turn viral quickly and throw up unanticipated risks — both public and occupational.
It is frustrating to see modern and progressive societies take a regressive stance towards medical science by rejecting proven medical interventions that have been preventing potentially deadly diseases. So what can be done to bring the anti-vaccination camp back to the 21st century?
Firstly, the medical field needs to re-educate the public about vaccination. Non-profit organizations that support families dealing with autism need to pitch in to debunk the vaccination-autism myth. A robust immunization-information system capable of monitoring immunization coverage across the country and raising the alarm when immunization rates fall below national coverage goals needs to be established. Lastly, the education sector can help enforce vaccination obligations among students. Suspension from school should be considered as a possible measure for students who fail to meet their immunization requirements.
In short, concerted and decisive actions are needed to effectively address vaccine hesitancy and put bad science to rest.