Manitoba public health working to improve early childhood immunization accessibility

A nurse draws a dose of mumps, measles, and rubella vaccine in Wichita, Kan., April 24, 2006. (The Wichita Eagle / Mike Hutmacher)

During the pandemic, public health resources have been stretched thin and in rural areas, and accessibility to routine early childhood immunization has not been consistent across the province.

Dr. Joss Reimer, the medical lead for the province’s COVID-19 vaccination implementation task force also said, what is consistent is how necessary these shots are for children and public health is working to improve accessibility.

Dr. Reimer said in Winnipeg many families can access these shots for diseases like pertussis through a community paediatrician, but in rural areas, families typically need to visit their local public health office. Over the last 18 months, staff at those locations have been strained with things like case and contact tracing and the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

"It is certainly challenging for them to also provide the usual services for the infant and early childhood vaccines," she said.

Dr. Reimer said each public health office in Manitoba would make its own decision on when to make routine vaccinations available, but more broadly, it is being worked on.

New mom Josee Voth, who lives near Altona, said she has fought tooth and nail to find available appointments to get her daughter’s routine immunizations booked.

“It seems like it’s off and on,” Voth told CTV News. “And when my daughter was due for her 4 month (shots), she was actually overdue, she was 6 months and still hadn’t received her 4-month shots.”

This was when Voth started contacting public health and her MLA because it just wasn’t getting anywhere.

Voth said she was told by her public health office that they had been ordered not to administer routine vaccines indefinitely so they didn’t even know when they could administer again. She said she was advised to try her own doctor, but Voth said her doctor did not do those types of childhood shots and was told by staff at that clinic to go to the public health office.

“It just seemed like I was being run around in circles,” she said.

Voth ended up finding a clinic in Winkler to get her daughter’s four-month shots and she was able to get the six-month shots in Altona.

Now, her daughter’s one-year shots are coming up and she’s gone ahead and booked that appointment in another town.

“I am a new mom, this is my first child, so I am probably a little over the top with most things, like on the cautious end of things,” Voth said. “But for someone who has decided to immunize my child, I live in a very low vaccinated area already, so for me, it was important because I do believe in the science and I do think it’s one piece of the puzzle to protect my child and so it was important for me.”

Voth also said it is public health that emphasizes children stay on schedule for these shots, and wonders why this has been pushed to the wayside.

“I guess I don’t understand why it was so important in the past and now all of a sudden it’s not important.”

She is also concerned that other rural Manitoba families who don’t have the means or time to travel for these shots, may just forego them altogether.

 

“I do believe this is one reason why our routine vaccination rates have declined because of the lack of access in rural communities like mine.”

Voth said she does understand the situation public health is in with the pandemic, but she would like rural public health offices to resume administering these routine childhood shots to some capacity and to let community members know about availability.

“If public health thinks this is important, they should be doing something about it, and maybe they are, but it has not been brought to my attention.”

A provincial spokesperson told CTV News that there has been a decline in routine vaccination coverage for early childhood shots like rotavirus, pertussis, and the first dose of the MMRV (measles, mumps, rubella, varicella).

The data pulled in May of 2021 compared the birth cohort from March 1, 2019 – March 31, 2020 (pre-COVID) and the birth cohort from April 1, 2020, to January 31, 2021 (During COVID).

The coverage rates in the birth cohort during COVID demonstrated a straight decrease of 20 per cent for second dose pertussis and 30 per cent for third dose pertussis.

There was a 15 per cent decrease for second dose rotavirus and 23% for third dose rotavirus.

For the MMRV vaccine, dose one coverage rates were 16 per cent lower during the COVID-19 period compared to pre-COVID.