Amid the barrage of news stories about executive excesses and other shenanigans at Alberta Health Services, it would be easy to become cynical about those tasked with administering the health-care system.
It may be true that such stories overshadow news about the positive work being done, and the efforts by AHS and Alberta Health to increase vaccination rates would certainly fall into that category. But not only does the negative coverage overshadow these efforts, it also serves to undermine them if Albertans start to lose confidence in the health-care system.
A multitude of reasons exist as to why the government and AHS need to deal with matters of compensation and transparency, but certainly restoring confidence in the system is one of them.
In the meantime, as we reach this midway point of Alberta’s 10-year plan to bolster vaccination rates, the leadership on the medical side needs to ensure its campaign is as effective as possible.
Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. James Talbot, says they intend on bringing in help from outside the province to develop new strategies and better understand why vaccination rates remain persistently low and how best to effectively communicate the importance of vaccines.
Given everything they’re up against, it’s a formidable challenge.
For example, as Alberta Health turns to the Internet as a means of getting its message out, it’s up against a torrent of anti-vaccine websites. Certainly suspicion of vaccines predates the Internet and social media, but the abundance of anti-vaccine websites has created an echo chamber that has hardened such views and undoubtedly influenced those who were wavering or had doubts.
Vaccines can also be a victim of their own success. Once diseases are confined to the history books, or at least perceived to be, complacency can then arise. Suspicion and complacency can be a dangerous mix, as we’ve seen recently with declining rates of whooping cough vaccination and the recent outbreaks here in Alberta and in other parts of Canada and the U.S.
However, anti-vaccine sentiment is not just emanating from the dark corners of the Internet. Various levels of government may be inadvertently contributing to the problem, and if the efforts by Alberta Health and AHS are to succeed, this will need to be confronted.
Within the circles of so-called alternative health, vaccines are often seen as conventional medicine, and therefore something to be wary of. For example, in a study last year, Toronto researchers found that parents who rely on naturopaths for health guidance were far more likely to have unvaccinated children.
More recently, the advocacy group Bad Science Watch called attention to the sale of homeopathic nosodes, which are being touted by some homeopaths as an alternative to vaccines. The branches of alternative medicine have been given legitimacy by governments. Alberta recently followed other provinces in regulating naturopaths and giving them status as medical professionals. And as Bad Science Watch has noted, Health Canada has approved the sale of these very homeopathic nosodes that are touted as vaccine replacements.
It’s one thing for governments to wish to respect choice in health care, but if our aim is to counter anti-vaccine sentiment, then health officials must be willing to confront and criticize the beliefs and practices of those alternative health practitioners who are sowing such sentiment.
It may also mean confronting high-ranking religious figures.
The publicly funded Calgary Catholic School District refuses to allow the HPV vaccine to be administered in schools, meaning that HPV vaccination rates for girls in the district remain very low. Despite mounting public pressure, Calgary Bishop Fred Henry’s intransigence on the issue ensures that the status quo will prevail. And by framing this as a religious and moral issue, rather than the health issue it truly is, Henry’s stance creates a controversy over this vaccine that should not exist. From there comes doubt and suspicion.
The effort by officials at Alberta Health and AHS to promote the importance of vaccines is commendable and deserving of public praise. But if those efforts are to succeed, it may require some uncomfortable confrontations. Above all, though, it will require the public to trust the messenger.
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