Do you have questions about children's vaccines? A new phone line has the answers
Canada is in the midst of respiratory illness season, yet the number of individuals getting the updated COVID-19 and flu vaccines remains low. The number of children receiving routine vaccinations has also dropped since the pandemic.
For the past few years, questions about vaccines dominated headlines and internet searches. Is this vaccine safe? Will it work? Who needs to get vaccinated?
Shaun Morris, a clinician scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and an associate professor of pediatrics in the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine, and Pierre-Philippe Piché-Renaud, who is pursuing a clinical and research fellowship at SickKids and graduate studies at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, routinely field these types of questions from parents and caregivers.
Both are members of the Centre for Vaccine Preventable Diseases (CVPD) at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
To help boost confidence in vaccination through easy access to reliable, evidence-based information, Morris and Piché-Renaud have launched a new pilot project running until the end of March.
The SickKids Vaccine Consult Service (VCS), part of a larger project funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), is offering a phone service staffed by nurses to answer caregivers’ questions about all pediatric vaccinations. The intent is to make vaccine information more accessible and, ultimately, help parents make the best, most informed decision for their child, Piché-Renaud says.
Building on previous success
The pilot project builds off the success of a COVID-19-specific VCS phone line that ran from October 2021 to March 2023. The COVID-19 VCS received more than 2,700 calls from caregivers asking about COVID-19 vaccines for children. The phone line was staffed by health-care professionals who provided information tailored to each individual circumstance, including living situation or medical history – answers that could not typically be found on the internet.
The nurses fielding calls were trained to create an open and safe environment, explains Julia Orkin, the SickKids COVID-19 VCS medical lead and an associate professor in U of T’s department of paediatrics in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine.
“It wasn’t, you know, ‘you must do this,’ it was really a shared supportive conversation,” she says. After calling in, 83 per cent of caregivers surveyed said their questions and concerns were addressed, and more than 60 per cent said they would proceed with vaccination.
The new phone service expands beyond the COVID-19 VCS by fielding questions not only about COVID-19 vaccines but all childhood immunizations. The service is open to anyone in Ontario, with a specific focus on patients with existing medical concerns and equity-deserving populations throughout the Greater Toronto Area.
Insurance coverage and internet access aren’t required to book a VCS consultation and translation services are available.
Piché-Renaud says that the conversations are about “taking it one step at a time, meeting parents where they are, and addressing their concerns.”
Research has shown that COVID-19 vaccine uptake was lower among certain groups – for instance, certain racialized and lower income populations. To reach these communities, Morris and Piché-Renaud are working with organizations like Black Creek Community Health Centre, Taibu Community Health Centre and the Paediatric Alliance of Ontario.
“The messaging is going to come through the people that [caregivers in these communities] already know and work with,” says Piché-Renaud.
Meeting an urgent need
Providing information on the importance of childhood vaccinations is particularly urgent.
“Immunization coverage for a variety of diseases is lagging behind, leaving kids susceptible to infections and outbreaks that are completely preventable. It’s essential to provide parents with clear, individually tailored messaging from a trusted source to enable them to make informed decisions for their children,” says Shelly Bolotin, director of the Centre for Vaccine Preventable Diseases and an associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
During the pandemic, routine childhood immunizations for preventable diseases like meningitis, measles and polio were set back to levels not seen since 2008. The proportion of Canadians who view vaccines as important for children also dropped from 91 to 82 per cent, according to UNICEF’s 2023 State of the World’s Children report. Canada has since seen cases of pertussis (whooping cough) and other vaccine preventable diseases.
“We’re still seeing kids who show up at SickKids and other paediatric hospitals with vaccine preventable illnesses, like certain types of meningitis,” says Piché-Renaud.
The physicians hope that through the VCS phone line and a related project working with SickKids pediatricians and patients, they will be able to better understand why some children are not getting vaccinated. With this information, they can then develop resources such as educational websites, or improve access to vaccination sites.
Making trusted vaccine information more accessible
Morris and Piché-Renaud encourage Ontario parents wondering about childhood vaccines to book a consultation appointment at SickKids VCS.
For Morris, empowering patients and families to make the best health decisions for themselves is one of the most important aspects of his job. Services like the VCS phone line help achieve that goal by “enabling people to connect to trusted sources of information and navigate through the quagmire of not good information, which is probably more common in the realm of immunization than in most areas.”