‘Not convinced it’s hesitancy’: Too many roadblocks to vaccinating kids, say health experts

Alberta's immunization rate for age five to 11 is well below that of other populous provinces

Dylan Short 3 minute read January 19, 2022

Staff prepare vaccine at the pop-up COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Village Square Leisure Centre in northeast Calgary on Sunday, June. 6, 2021. Gavin Young/Postmedia

Improving the provincial vaccine program in schools and making doses easier to access could improve the rate of children receiving their COVID-19 vaccinations in Alberta, several public health experts argue.

A total of 42 per cent — or 164,344 — of children between the ages of five and 11 in Alberta have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 5.8 per cent have received two doses. That rate of immunization is well below other large population provinces, with Ontario having administered first doses to 50.4 per cent of children within that age range and Quebec 60.1 per cent.

Dr. Shannon MacDonald, an immunization researcher with the University of Alberta’s faculty of nursing, said Alberta could improve its campaign if it made it easier for parents to get their children vaccinated.

“I’m not convinced it’s hesitancy, I’m pretty convinced a lot of it is accessibility,” said MacDonald. “It’s one thing for me to run into the pharmacy on the way to work and get my dose, and it’s another thing for me to take time off work, go pick up my kid from school, drive them to the vaccine clinic, drop them off back at school and then get back to work.”

She suggested improving the provincial immunization system in schools.

“I am a huge proponent of in-school vaccination. It has been shown to increase vaccine uptake. It’s been shown to decrease disparity in vaccine uptake,” said MacDonald.

Premier Jason Kenney said last week that there wasn’t a lot of buy-in from families when the province previously set up in-school clinics.

“We had done that on the first and second dose when we extended that to the teenagers and there was almost no (interest) . . . but it sucked up a lot of Alberta Health Services resources to staff those clinics for almost no demand,” Kenney said during a COVID-19 update.

MacDonald said she believed the current setup leads to few permission slips actually returning to schools. Currently, government representatives need to drop off forms to every school, which are then distributed to teachers. Teachers need to ensure it gets into the child’s backpack and in turn into the hands of parents, who then need to sign it and ensure their child takes the slip back to school and back to their teacher.

 

“When we say there wasn’t good uptake, I suspect a lot of that is consent forms didn’t get returned. If we could learn one thing about this process and put it into play, I would say, could we enter the 21st century and use an electronic consent process where public health sends a message directly to the parent,” said MacDonald.

Dr. Jia Hu with 19 to Zero, a coalition of experts working to reduce vaccine hesitancy, agreed that accessibility is playing a large role in the slower uptake of pediatric vaccines in Alberta.

“I looked at the specific differences between Alberta and the other provinces. I think one driving factor here is access. In Alberta, pediatric vaccine is only available at large public health clinics — Ontario, they’ve sort of gone gangbusters, public health clinics, pharmacies, schools, mobile clinics.”

He said there is also an element of parents continuing to be concerned for their child’s safety despite evidence that it is safe for children to be immunized.

Alberta Health spokeswoman Chastity Anderson said improving pediatric vaccine rates is a priority for Health Minister Jason Copping. She said 125 locations across Alberta are offering vaccines for children, with most operating during the evening and on weekends.

“We’re already over 40 per cent and we’ll keep working to get the rate higher, by giving parents good information and encouraging them to choose vaccination for their kids,” said Anderson. “To help us do that, we’ll get advice from Alberta’s new Vaccine Hesitancy Advisory Committee, a diverse group of health professionals, youth, Indigenous health directors, community leaders and academics.”

dshort@postmedia.com

Twitter: @dylanshort

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