Kids health

New vaccine requirements for Ontario: What parents need to know

Before your kids start school in Ontario next fall, make sure they’re up to date on these immunizations.

Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

The Ontario government recently announced that kids in the province between the ages of four and 17 will have to meet new vaccination requirements to attend public school this September. Proof of immunization for meningococcal disease (including meningitis), whooping cough and—if your child was born in 2010 or later—chicken pox are now mandatory. These vaccines were already on the recommended immunization schedule that doctors use for kids, but they used to be optional.

“This will ensure Ontario parents have peace of mind that our schools are safe and healthy places for their children to learn,” said Liz Sandals, the Ontario minister of education, in a statement.

Here’s what parents need to know now:

1. Measles outbreaks have health experts worried

The requirements for the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccine have not changed significantly—there’s just an adjustment to the doses given. But Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews said, when announcing the new requirements, that the recent measles cases in Ontario have raised concerns about potential flare-ups of other vaccine-preventable diseases. There have been outbreaks of measles in five different provinces, including more than 375 cases in British Columbia, according to Health Canada.

2. Good news: Most kids won’t need new shots

If you’ve followed the immunization schedule to a T, you most likely won’t need to do anything. In fact, the Ontario Ministry of Health estimates that more than 70 percent of kids are up-to-date already, even with the new requirements. But what if you’re not quite sure? Joelene Huber, a paediatrician in Toronto, says that the announcement is really about reminding parents to double-check medical records in case they forgot a visit. “Check with your doctor to ensure your child’s immunizations are up-to-date,” she says. “That way no one will be confused or think they are up-to-date when they may not be.”

3. You need to update the government on your child’s immunization status

Did you know that in Ontario it’s up to parents—not doctors or schools—to forward immunization records to the local public health unit? Even when you submit your vaccine records to your school with the usual registration forms, schools don’t necessarily forward the most recent records to the public health unit for you, so it’s best to do it yourself, or double-check that they arrived. (Don’t know how to find or contact your public health unit? Try this locator.)

4. You’ll have a grace period to comply

Kids who are not caught up on their required immunizations won’t be immediately suspended from school, says the Ministry of Health, but parents can expect a series of reminders and advance notices from the public health unit until they’re up-to-date.

5. Who’s opting out

According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, as many as 20 percent of parents have concerns about vaccines, delay immunizations or refuse recommended vaccines outright. Exemptions from the Ontario immunization schedule—granted on religious or philosophical grounds—must be applied for, and the province’s chief medical officer of health says that only about 2 percent of families select this option.

Here’s a refresher on the whooping cough, meningococcal and chicken pox vaccine schedule:

• The diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (or whooping cough) vaccine (DTaP, for short) is usually administered in doses at two months, four months, six months and 18 months, and then again when your child is between four and six years old, and in high school, between ages 14 and 16.

• The chicken pox (or varicella) vaccine—now mandatory—is administered in two doses when a child is 15 months and again when he or she’s between four and six.

• The meningococcal vaccine is now mandatory and is administered at 12 months (to protect against one strain), with a second dose for grade-seven students (to protect against four more strains).

For more information about immunizations required by public schools, check out the Ontario Ministry of Health site. They have a handy checklist for parents here.

Read more: Today’s Parent interviewed paediatrician Joelene Huber all about this controversial topic recently. Check it out: Worried about vaccines? Your top questions answered.