Immunity gap: Canada muzzles its teen drivers to prevent this flu season – but …

Not even the busy Canada-US border could stop the vaccination needle from spreading.

The Canadian public health agency declared that not only are vaccination rates below national benchmarks for teens in Vancouver and Moose Jaw, but Canadian teens born after 2000 are infected with lower-respiratory illnesses such as influenza at a rate that is double the US rate. This rate has risen in recent years, and because of an uptick in ongoing outbreaks of those respiratory illnesses, the health authority has declared that Canadian teens aren’t ready to start their school year without a shot to prevent viral illness.

Further, in order to be able to use buses, taxis, and commercial vans to transport youth across the Canadian border to American schools, teens must be immunized – not just to protect them from potentially dangerous influenza and other illnesses, but also to protect their colleagues and employers if they contract something while working. On Monday, health authorities insisted that vaccination rates on the American side of the border are more than 1.5 times higher than Canadian rates. These rates had been on the rise too, but health authorities have also said that the number of teen travellers to the US is on the rise, a year after the last batch of non-immunized Canada-bound teens, who have since turned 21, became eligible to get shot.

“There has been evidence of a rise in school-based influenza activity in the past few years, and recent research suggests that increased Canadian flu activity beginning last season could be linked to an increase in the numbers of 19-year-olds coming to the US,” Eric Finkelstein, senior epidemiologist at Public Health Ontario, stated in an email.

“Additional data that have shown a more than 80% reduction in influenza hospitalizations in Canadians born after 2000. That means those kids and adults who arrived prior to those born since 2000 would be arriving in the population as now-immunized teens.”

That number is large: according to Ontario’s School Immunization Network, over 60% of Canadian teens born between 2006 and 2010 have had their first dose of the influenza vaccine. Last fall, the Canadian government released a report that said over 85% of teens in the country born since 2000 have had their first dose of the influenza vaccine. But the rate is still woefully below what’s required. According to the World Health Organization, children aged five years and under should receive two doses of the vaccine, while those between 10 and 17 should be given four doses.

That gap may be one reason that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is requiring a box of antibiotics for all truck drivers and bus or van drivers coming into Canada this week.

But that decision, too, could set a dangerous precedent for both Canada and the US. On the American side of the border, large gatherings by truck drivers have been known to lead to other health problems. In 2015, a US Customs and Border Protection study found that the exchange of drugs between bus and van drivers between South Texas and Mexico was prevalent – 19% of drivers with commercial permits had drug violations. And that number jumped to 56% if they lived in East Texas or Houston. And yet despite that prevalence, only 32% of the vehicles drivers brought into the US in 2015 had the drugs they were meant to carry.

Further, some of those drivers, according to testimony from Border Patrol, also bring patients with them while they travel: “transportation drugs … is a major point of entry between Mexican agricultural production and final consumer markets in the United States,” of the study. “Not just a transnational illegal drug group (TADG), but largely a transnational illicit drug industry.”

That means that even in the US, border agents might find themselves arresting drivers who bring in drugs – people who make the effort to be vaccinated.

Until that doesn’t happen, it seems fair to at least train first-year drivers on how to act under the circumstances – including, perhaps, the emotional and financial costs and responsibilities that come with vaccination, and the sensible fact that no one person has the right to play God and decide whether or not another person has the opportunity to protect themselves.

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