Anti-vaccination movement spreading locally - Scores of children being put at risk
Jamaica's successful and internationally acclaimed vaccination programme is under threat as more parents join the anti-vaccination movement which is sweeping the United States and sections of Europe.
According to vice-president of the Paediatric Association of Jamaica, Dr Carolyn Pinnock-Jackson, there is a growing number of vaccine-hesitant parents in Jamaica.
"It is an ongoing concern for us. Jamaica used to be the lead in the vaccination and elimination of disease, and Jamaica was actually the first country in the world to eliminate polio, and other countries came to study us to see what we were doing that worked so well," Pinnock-Jackson told The Sunday Gleaner.
"Many parents will say that they are afraid of the complications of the vaccine, and I have had some interesting conversations with parents," she added.
Failure to have a child vaccinated in Jamaica is unlawful and, according to the Public Health Act of 1974, Immunisation Regulations of 1986, a parent who fails to have their child vaccinated can be prosecuted.
So, too, can the principal of the institution the child attends. The law allows for exemption based on medical reasons and not on religious or philosophical beliefs.
But Pinnock-Jackson noted that some Rastafarians do not vaccinate, and she has found, too, that some parents who had their children in the US, where vaccination is not mandatory, are opposed to the process.
"We have had some issues even in our own association where a doctor would write, because this person is 'X' religion or 'Y' religion, they are not vaccinated. But the truth of the matter is that the law states that you must be vaccinated," noted Pinnock-Jackson.
"We have had some challenges with, for example, kids who are born abroad and were not vaccinated on the same schedule that we use. We have had challenges with kids who have been here all along. You have parents who refuse vaccine and you have those parents who want to change the schedule, so they stretch out the frequency of the dosage," she said.
According to Vitals, a quarterly report produced by the Ministry of Health, Jamaica failed all but two of its vaccination targets for January to December 2017.
The country failed to meet the desired minimal 95 per cent coverage for the BCG, Polio3, DPT3, HepB3 and HIB3 vaccines.
In Hanover, only 50 per cent of babies received the BCG vaccine, while it was 70 per cent in Portland, 69 per cent in St Elizabeth and 76 per cent in St Catherine.
Several parishes also reported less than 90 per cent for the polio and HEPB vaccines. The BCG vaccine protects against tuberculosis.
"Once you have HIV in your community, it increases the risk of healthy people being exposed to tuberculosis," said Pinnock-Jackson.
"The drop in vaccination is significant because it means that your baseline population is more exposed," she said.
Pinnock-Jackson charged that Jamaicans have become very relaxed because many are not aware of the devastation created by illnesses such as polio and measles in the past.
"We don't see the impact of the disease anymore. When my parents were young, they knew people who had polio, who were paralysed and had to walk with braces and that sort of thing. The threat of polio was real to them. I have a patient who is blind because his mom had measles when she was pregnant.
"Parents tell themselves that if everybody else gets the vaccine then my child doesn't need to get it, but we are a tourist country, and being a tourist country, we are at even more risk," warned Pinnock-Jackson.
Several international celebrities have joined the anti-vaccination campaign in recent times on the basis that vaccines contribute to autism and contain contaminants which are harmful to children.
The Public Health Immunisation Regulations, 1986 (excerpts)
(1) It shall be the duty of every parent of any child to have the child immunised.
2) Subject to paragraph (3), the parent of every child in the island shall cause such child, (a) to be immunised within one year of the child's birth or soon thereafter; and, b) to be re-immunised at such times as may be specified by the minister or any medical officer authorised by him in that behalf, in respect of any disease.
(3) Paragraph (2) shall not apply to any child in respect of whom there is contra-indications, of it the child is not fully fit to be immunised.