LUKE HENDRY Intelligencer file photo Shelly Brown, of the Hastings and Prince Edward Counties Health Unit

in Belleville, holds a syringe of vaccine in February 2011. The health unit recommends a variety of vaccinations and has the power to suspend students from school if they aren't immunized. Canadians do, however, have a legal right to refuse vaccination — but students must follow an opt-out process. EXEMPTIONS POSSIBLE Know rights before getting shots: advocate LUKE HENDRY The Intelligencer As a few local students remain suspended, a health advocate is calling for the promotion of rights, not drugs. About 500 students in Hastings and Prince Edward Counties were suspended last month by the counties’ health unit because either their vaccinations or their vaccination records were out of date. Under Ontario law, students must either receive vaccinations against a variety of diseases, cite their religious or philosophical opposition to those vaccinations, or face suspension. Though some were suspended for only a few hours, a few remained suspended last week. Officials said less than five students were affected but would not provide further details because of privacy concerns. Yet Edda West, co-ordinator of the Vaccination Risk Awareness Network, said not enough people know they have the legal right to refuse immunizations. She blamed both public health and media. The national network is a non-profit group aimed at educating families about their right of informed consent to vaccionation and, as published on its website, “to maintain and further the individual’s freedom from enforced medication.” West noted vaccinations are “not mandatory in Canada; they are recommended.” She said public health officials wield a “heavy stick” in promoting vaccinations. “Their agenda is (to) vaccinate every kid with all the available vaccines that are licensed for youth in Canada,” said West. She added media sometimes promote that agenda without noting the legal right of exemption. The local health unit insists area families are always told of their options. “So many people feel this huge pressure — from public health, from school boards,” West said. “They’re roped into complying with the public health vaccine policies and nobody gives any thought to really fundamental issues like informed consent. She charged public health agencies “totally underpromote” alternatives to immunization. “It’s very much an ‘our way or the highway’ kind of thing and we find it unconscionable.” West said the sector promotes the idea that all vaccines are safe. “That is not a correction assumption,” she said. “Some children have had severe vaccine reactions.” She also said students should not be given the right to decide. “This is hugely problematic because it means the state has taken a step toward … authority

of a child that is over and above parental authority.” But Wayne Tucker, director of communicable disease control for the Hastings and Prince Edward Counties Health Unit, said suspension letters sent to families outlined all three options. “They are informed of the options that are available,” Tucker said. “It’s always clearly explained.” All health unit information on immunizations informs families of their three options, he said. The student can receive the required shots or complete either a statement of medical exemption or a statement declaring vaccination conflicts with their beliefs, such as religion. Though an exact number wasn’t available, he said “a significant” number of students had all their required shots but incomplete records. Of the 1,036 students who received suspension letters, 60 — or six per cent — submitted exemption forms. About one per cent of the entire student body — not just those at risk of suspension — usually seeks exemption, Tucker said. He said the suspensions resulted in “some frustrations from some parents” but the process unfolded smoothly. Health board member Ron Poste, a retired educator, asked at board meeting earlier this month why the suspensions occurred near the end of the school year, when exams are held. Tucker replied there were several logistical reasons for the timing. An interview with staff of the Algonquin and Lakeshore Catholic District School Board could not be arranged by press time. Kerry Donnell, communications officer for the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board, said “no time of year is a good time” for suspensions. “Ultimately we want children to be in school,” Donnell said, “but even so, we’ll work with the health unit to facilitate this process. “We did hear from schools — not a lot, but a handful of calls — that some parents had said, ‘Why is this happening?’” The suspension order lasts 20 days and can be renewed. “There’d probably no value in renewing the suspension when there’s only 2.5 weeks of school left,” said Tucker.

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