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Since COVID began, more parents now say they're 'really against vaccinating' their children, new survey shows

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A new survey from the Angus Reid Institute (ARI) shows that opposition to mandatory childhood vaccination in Canada has risen substantially since 2019 to nearly two in five Canadians from one quarter, with 17 per cent of surveyed parents with children under age 18 indicating they were “really against” vaccinating their children.

Conducted earlier this month, the national survey asked respondents about their feelings toward immunization programs and the politics around them. Compared to pre-pandemic data gathered five years prior, public opinion, including among parents, has swung away from vaccination in some key metrics.

“The COVID-19 pandemic led to a global discussion about vaccination for people of all ages,” a data release about the survey from ARI reads. “In the wake of that unparalleled event, the debate over childhood vaccination appears to have taken on a new intensity.”

 

In the 2019 survey, 70 per cent of respondents said they felt vaccinations should be mandatory for children to attend daycare or school with other children. By this year, that proportion had fallen to slightly more than half, with 38 per cent saying that vaccination should be the parent’s choice and eight per cent saying they were not sure.

Regionally, support this year for mandatory vaccination was highest in Ontario (61 per cent) and Atlantic Canada (59 per cent), appearing to roughly align with policy trends regarding schools, as ARI notes that both Ontario and New Brunswick maintain some immunization requirements for children, barring exemptions. The least support for such programs was found in Quebec (45 per cent) and Alberta (48 per cent).

Vaccine rejection

Beside the question of vaccine mandates was the issue of whether parents support the vaccines themselves in the first place. Data from the latest survey suggests that a significant and growing proportion do not or are unsure; potentially enough to jeopardize herd immunity for vaccine-preventable disease in Canada, ARI notes.

Among all respondents, nine per cent indicated this year that they were “really against vaccinating [their] children,” a near doubling of the anti-vaccination rate found in 2019. Those rates were even higher among those who had one or more children under the age of 18, reaching 17 per cent in a more-than fourfold increase from four per cent in 2019. In that time, the proportion of parents of young children indicating uncertainty also doubled, to 16 per cent, from eight.

 

A Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) report referenced by ARI, examining 2021 immunization data, found that vaccination uptake among two-year-olds varied nationally by disease, ranging from 77 per cent for diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus to 92 per cent for polio and measles.

According to the agency, Canada is currently targeting vaccination rates of 95 per cent for each of the above-mentioned conditions. Those benchmarks were not met in the 2021 PHAC sample.

“It is important to close any gaps in coverage that have emerged due to the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure children are not vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases,” the PHAC report reads.

Social division

This month’s survey also delved into the factors underlying vaccine skepticism, finding substantial or growing rates of Canadians doubting the efficacy, safety and scientific basis for immunization.

“There is a sense among some Canadians that vaccines aren’t necessary and that the human body can gain immunity to diseases on its own,” the ARI release reads.

All told, 22 per cent of respondents agreed strongly or moderately with that sentiment, with 69 per cent of those identified by ARI as “Anti-Vax” agreeing, as well as roughly three in 10 parents of children under 18.

 

In addition, 29 per cent of respondents indicated they agreed “the science on vaccinations isn’t quite clear,” holding steady from the same proportion in 2019. A further 34 per cent, rising from 26 per cent in 2019, agreed with the statement “there is a real risk of serious side effects” from vaccinations.

Conversely, as much as 71 per cent of respondents said they agreed “the anti-vaccine movement is going to end up with a lot of people getting sick unnecessarily.”

Across pro- and anti-vaccination perspectives, nearly one in four total respondents agreed they were “afraid to bring up the topic of vaccines with friends and family,” including 28 per cent of parents with children under 12.

“The issue of vaccination has also become a divisive topic,” ARI wrote. “Whether this is because of their own hesitations, or worries about conflict with those who disagree with their position, evidently a significant number of parents steer clear of this topic.”

Methodology

This year’s ARI Canadian vaccination survey was conducted between Feb. 16 and 19, 2024, among a randomized sample of 1,626 Canadian adults. ARI notes that, for comparison purposes only, the sample would carry a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points, 19 times out of 20, and that some percentage breakdowns may not add up to 100 per cent as a result of rounding.

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