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Health unit can issue suspension orders if kids’ immunization records are not up to date

Andrew Philips

By Andrew Philips, Special to Postmedia Network

Getting the needle might not be a fun prospect for kids, but the alternative for their parents could end up stinging a lot worse in the form of lost income.

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit regularly sends parents letters alerting them to the fact their children could face school suspension unless they are fully vaccinated against a range of diseases.

“We do send suspension orders,” said Rebecca Dupuis, the health unit’s vaccine preventable disease program manager.

“For a lot of parents, it’s not having the understanding that the health unit can suspend children from school. They don’t see the correlation.”

Earlier this week, a Windsor-area health unit suspended 659 elementary school students after determining their immunization records weren’t up to date while reviewing records for all children born between 2008 and 2011.

But while some parents in that southern Ontario city might now be facing lost wages as they stay home with their children or find a suitable babysitter, the situation isn’t quite as dire here.

Dupuis said the local health unit hasn’t sent any suspension letters so far this year.

“We have sent some questionnaires home for our Grade 2 students,” Dupuis said, noting the health unit gives parents time to sort out whether they only need to provide the health unit with proof of immunizations or head to their family doctor or clinic to get their child a missing vaccination.

“We give parents time in the fall to update their records,” she said, noting health-care providers don’t contact the health unit regarding the immunizations they provide.

“They usually have several weeks lead time. Everybody knows what is expected and what the timeline is.”

But should these letters and any follow-up correspondence be ignored or forgotten as families become busy during the fall months, the health unit could start issuing suspension letters later this year or in early 2018.

“We often start out with a high number,” Dupuis said, referring to the initial letters sent out. “Our suspension letters are usually quite low.”

Last year, for example, the health unit sent out 4,000 initial letters from one particular grade that had 6,000 total students. In the end, it had to ask boards to suspend 170 students.

“After the first day, that was down to 60 students,” Dupuis said, noting the vast majority of parents took their children that day to have them vaccinated. “Our ultimate goal is we try not to suspend students.”

Dupuis pointed out that the health unit is required under the province’s Immunization of School Pupil’s Act to collect and maintain up-to-date immunization records for every student registered in school in its catchment area.

Dupuis said some parents might not understand that the health unit can ask school boards to issue suspensions in order to ensure parents keep their children’s vaccinations up to date.

That means parents must provide local health units with proof of immunization for diphtheria, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, meningococcal, pertussis and varicella (chickenpox - for those born in 2010 or later).

Dupuis said that while the health unit tries to review students in all grades to ensure immunizations are current, Grade 2 is a natural time to verify parental records since children normally require a booster shot prior to that age.

“It’s one year we tend to focus on, but technically we are responsible for assessing every child, every year. Sometimes, we will focus on high school students.”

Parents who choose not to vaccinate a child because of a medical reason, or a religious or conscientious belief, must provide the appropriate documentation such as a signed medical exemption completed by a physician or nurse practitioner or in the case of a religious belief obtain a notarized affidavit. However, in the event of a disease outbreak, these students would be removed from school. 

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