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Vaccine info line's future uncertain despite rise in measles-related calls, SickKids says

A colourized electron transmission micrograph of measles virus particles. Parents are seeking more information about vaccinations in light of recent measles cases in Ontario, said Dr. Pierre-Philippe Piché-Renaud, a pediatric infectious disease physician at SickKids.  (CBC, UK Health Security Agency - image credit)
A colourized electron transmission micrograph of measles virus particles. Parents are seeking more information about vaccinations in light of recent measles cases in Ontario, said Dr. Pierre-Philippe Piché-Renaud, a pediatric infectious disease physician at SickKids. (CBC, UK Health Security Agency - image credit)

A vaccine information phone line for parents at SickKids hospital has seen an increase in calls following five confirmed measles cases in recent weeks, but the project's co-lead says it's currently on hold after federal funding was not renewed.

The Vaccine Consult Service is a pilot project that allows parents to have in-depth conversations with nurses about immunizations in a "safe, non-judgmental" environment, said Dr. Pierre-Philippe Piché-Renaud, a pediatric infectious disease physician at SickKids.

"We've seen an uptake in the numbers of calls in the past few weeks, especially in recent days and weeks, with the situation around measles," he told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Wednesday.

However, Piché-Renaud says the service is "halted for now" as funding received from the Public Health Agency of Canada was not renewed. The project's website lists Wednesday as the last day to book an appointment.

In an email to CBC News, Public Health Agency of Canada spokesperson Tammy Jarbeau said the Vaccine Consult Service received funding from last September to March 31 of this year as part of a pilot project.

The federal government's Immunization Partnership Fund (IPF) provided SickKids with $230,000 between 2023 and 2024, she said. Funding for all projects financed by the IPF for this period — including the Vaccine Consult Service — will end on Mar. 31, she added.

In October of 2023, the IPF issued another call for proposals for projects running a maximum of two years, beginning earliest this April.

"This competitive, merit-based process is still in effect and ongoing, and final funding decisions have yet to be made," Jarbeau said.

Meanwhile, Piché-Renaud says the project is looking for ways to renew the funding.

Resources like the Vaccine Consult Service are essential, says Dr. Vinita Dubey, associate medical officer of health for Toronto Public Health (TPH).

"It's not just about having people who can vaccinate," Dubey said. "We also need some of those other places where parents can go to get their questions answered."

Typically, parents call the phone line "to confirm that it would be OK for their child to be immunized," Piché-Renaud said. He says some situations include if their child has underlying medical conditions or has experienced side-effects from one or more vaccines in the past.

The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine consists of two doses, according to a city of Toronto news release.

LISTEN | Vaccine information phone line sees an uptick of phone calls: 

If somebody receives the recommended two doses of the vaccine, in theory, the risk of catching measles is "almost zero," Piché-Renaud said.

"It is not 100 per cent perfect, but it's close to that," he said.

There are a subset of children who are too young to receive the measles vaccine, Piché-Renaud says, adding that people who are immunocompromised may still catch measles even if previously vaccinated.

According to the federal government, children under six months old are too young to receive the vaccine.

Check your vaccine status, TPH says

With March break looming, TPH is advising families to check that they are protected against measles before travelling.

"Due to a decline in measles vaccinations during the COVID-19 pandemic, health authorities have reported a significant increase in measles outbreaks globally with recent cases of measles reported in Toronto, York Region, Peel Region and Brant County," TPH said in a news release on Wednesday.

"Those unsure of their vaccination status are asked to check with their healthcare provider," it added.

All Ontarians are eligible for free measles vaccination, TPH says. School-aged children can book an appointment at a TPH community clinic or visit their primary health care provider, they say.

Adults can access the vaccine for free through primary care and some walk-in clinics, the release says.

Some suspensions for out-of-date vaccine records

Historically, Dubey says, Toronto has seen measles outbreaks related to March break.

Though measles was considered a routine childhood illness before 1970, complications of the disease can be severe, she said, including hearing loss, pneumonia and encephalitis (brain inflammation).

"If every child were to get measles now, we know that a good handful of them would end up getting very sick from it, and some even dying," she said.

A measles outbreak is not inevitable in Ontario, said Dr. Pierre-Philippe Piché-Renaud,  a pediatric infectious disease physician at SickKids.
A measles outbreak is not inevitable in Ontario, said Dr. Pierre-Philippe Piché-Renaud, a pediatric infectious disease physician at SickKids.

A measles outbreak is not inevitable in Ontario, said Dr. Pierre-Philippe Piché-Renaud, a pediatric infectious disease physician at SickKids. (Guillaume Cottin/CBC)

Measles symptoms can include a high fever, cold-like symptoms, cough, runny nose, small spots with white centres inside the mouth, sore eyes, sensitivity to light and a red, blotchy rash lasting four to seven days, TPH says.

Since September, TPH has sent out thousands of notices to notify parents if the health agency does not have their child's up-to-date vaccination records, says Dubey. Some students received suspension orders after their records were found to be not updated in accordance with the Immunization of School Pupils Act, she adds.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, TPH suspended their vaccine assessment program, which monitors student vaccination records, said Dr. Allison Chris, associate medical officer of health for TPH.

The 2023-2024 school year marks the return of this program, which continues to be in progress, she says.

A measles outbreak is not inevitable in Ontario, Piché-Renaud says. About 95 per cent of the population should be fully vaccinated for measles to not spread, he says.

Canada can learn from Europe, Dubey says, where measles vaccination rates decreased enough to result in measles outbreaks. A vaccine is a "very safe way" to prevent an outbreak, she said.