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Opinion: Support for mandatory childhood vaccinations falls 13 points in four years, poll finds

Survey suggests lasting harm from debunked and retracted study in 1990s.
Child-vaccination-KoldoyChris-Moment-Getty Images
Three in four Canadians support mandatory childhood inoculation, but a growing minority of sceptics could pose a challenge the health care system

Every two years, Research Co. and Glacier Media ask Canadians about their views on vaccines, both pediatric and for seasonal diseases. In the two previous iterations of these surveys, we noticed some differences when the country’s residents pondered the concept of mandatory shots for kids and adults.

This year, we were very curious about the effect of the COVID-19 on these perceptions. The country is coming off two years of unforeseen but inevitable discussions about inoculation, and with only a tiny minority of Canadians choosing not to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Over the past few months, Canadians expressed a high level of satisfaction with the COVID-19 vaccination plans and phases outlined by each province, as part of the delivery of health care to the population. We also saw a consistently high level of support for the concept of “vaccine passports” to access specific activities.

Last weekend, we had a new opportunity to ask Canadians about vaccines that are not related to the COVID-19 pandemic. When it comes to inoculation against seasonal diseases, such as the flu, our views have not changed dramatically over the past four years. In 2018, 38 per cent of Canadians said that the flu vaccine should be mandatory for everybody in their province. In 2020, 44 per cent of Canadians agreed with this idea.

This year, 41 per cent of Canadians want seasonal vaccinations to be mandatory. A majority (51 per cent) continue to believe that each person should be allowed to decide whether they want to get the flu vaccine.

The attachment of Canadians to the concept of mandatory seasonal vaccinations varies greatly according to age. While only 33 per cent of Canadians aged 18 to 34 endorse this practice, the proportion jumps slightly to 37 per cent among those aged 35 to 54 and rises markedly to 53 per cent among those aged 55 and over.

The year-to-year fluctuations become more dramatic on the question about pediatric vaccinations. In 2018, 88 per cent of Canadians thought these shots should be mandatory in their province. Two years later, it was 81 per cent. In 2022, it is 75 per cent.

Some may look at this most recent finding on its own and regard it as positive, since three in four Canadians are in agreement on mandatory childhood inoculation. Still, the level of support for this course of action is 13 points lower than it was a couple of years before the pandemic began.

We may have assumed that COVID-19 would make Canadians more aware about the importance of getting kids vaccinated. In reality, the small group of those who posit that this is a decision that must be left up to parents grew from 12 per cent in 2020 to 20 per cent in 2022.

In Ontario and Atlantic Canada, one in four residents (25 per cent) believe parents should decide whether their kids get inoculated against specific diseases. The numbers are lower in British Columbia (21 per cent), Saskatchewan and Manitoba (19 per cent), Alberta (16 per cent) and Quebec (15 per cent).

An issue that has been closely tied with vaccine hesitancy is the purported link between childhood inoculation and autism. The confusion originated in the 1990s, following the publication of a study in the weekly medical journal The Lancet, which has since been discredited and retracted. This year, 52 per cent of Canadians think this link does not exist, but 19 per cent believe it is real.

The generational divide on this question is troubling. Canadians aged 55 and over are significantly less likely to believe in the debunked connection between childhood vaccines and autism (12 per cent) than their counterparts aged 35 to 54 (23 per cent) and aged 18 to 34 (26 per cent). At this point, one in four of Canada’s youngest adults remain confused about the situation.

It is impossible to predict how the numbers will shift in the next two years. The exposure to the pandemic, and to a massive vaccination program that has no precedent in Canada, did not change the minds of many on seasonal diseases. The notion of adults having the freedom to protect themselves against the flu remains consistent.

The numbers on childhood vaccinations are different and delineate a clear challenge for policy makers, doctors and the health care system as a whole. The pendulum is shifting slowly from a state of near unanimity in 2018 to a growing minority of skeptics in 2022.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted from March 25 to March 27, 2022, among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.