New Canadian app tracks vaccinations, outbreaks

Getting a flu shot. Photo: Lance McCord, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Getting a flu shot. Photo: Lance McCord, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

The fractious issue of childhood vaccinations is back in the news in Ottawa after health officials here recorded the first case of measles since 2011. (And it’s amazing how little the whole subject has changed since I was a new parent well over 20 years ago.)

The pro-science side decries those who refuse to vaccinate, whether the reason stems from complacency or opposition. The concept of community immunity (AKA “herd immunity”) is explained and re-explained. Conversely, those who question conventional medical wisdom are back to defending their views or their right to make that choice.

The whole tempest makes this an excellent time to introduce a new app to help track vaccinations. As reported by the CBC:

Ottawa Hospital researchers have developed a free app to help Canadians store, manage and access immunization information.

Dr. Kumanan Wilson of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute said the ImmunizeCA app will also alert users if there’s an issue in their area, such as the recent measles outbreak in Ottawa.

“So that would be in the outbreak section, they would see how close they are to the where the report is,” he said.

“They could see if their family is up to date. They may say, ‘Oh, time to get Johnny vaccinated. It’s time to get catch up the vaccine.'”

The app is privacy-protected and not accessible to any health agency.

The Ottawa Citizen details how Dr. Wilson came up with the app idea after a casual discussion with a neighbor in a park. He worked with an electrical engineering student, Cameron Bell, to come up with something better than the traditional shot card. According to the Citizen:

A prototype version of their app has been available for Ontario residents since 2012. As of this week, an improved version is available for residents across Canada at

The national app, which is a collaboration between the Canadian Public Health Association, Immunize Canada and The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, not only helps people to manage their own health information — letting them know when and if they are due for immunization — but provides information about vaccines.

It also links to a U.S.-based mapping system that can inform the user of any vaccine-preventable outbreaks in their proximity. Although recent measles outbreaks have been widely publicized, Wilson noted that members of the public often aren’t aware when there are nearby outbreaks.

An Internet search reveals a fair number of apps with similar functions in the U.S.

When I was at that stage of parenting, the official form was a yellow shot card issued by the State of Hawaii. The new Canadian app described above sounds like a useful aide, but I can’t see that it would serve as proof of immunization. What is the format for vaccination record keeping where you live now?

Just to throw gas on this already-hot fire, I straddle both sides. I think many (most?) immunizations are reasonably safe. Statistically speaking, shots have saved innumerable lives. But I also mistrust the push to immunize against each and every disease imaginable, at the earliest possible age. It seems to me that can be taken too far.

When it comes to health, I would argue one size does not fit all. I’d even go one further and say science is great, but it is not infallible.


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15 Comments on “New Canadian app tracks vaccinations, outbreaks”

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  1. oa says:

    “But I also mistrust the push to immunize against each and every disease imaginable, at the earliest possible age.”
    This is irresponsible. And to compare vaccinations with thalidomide is borderline monstrous. This sort of evidence-free pontification, which resides almost solely on the left, will lead to needless children’s deaths from measles and whooping cough, and the return of polio. There aren’t two sides to straddle. You’re either pro-polio or you aren’t.

  2. The Original Larry says:

    Monstrous? Hardly. In fact, thalidomide is a great example of why we should view science and medicine with some informed skepticism. The doctor who first warned of the dangers of thalidomide was later found to have falsified data in another drug study. The point is, nothing is as absolute as you would like it to be. Responsible, thinking, educated people are among those who do not believe in vaccinations. They aren’t “pro-polio” just because you say so.

  3. Walker says:

    “The doctor who first warned of the dangers of thalidomide was later found to have falsified data in another drug study.”

    That’s why we don’t depend on a single study or a single researcher. But if the results of scientific experiments can be replicated by dozens or even hundreds of researchers publishing in peer-reviewed journals, the level of trust rises to a near certainty.

    The distrust of the MMR vaccine was started by a single fraudulent paper, since retracted. See MMR vaccine controversy.

  4. oa says:

    Larry, People contribute to polio’s spread when they say it’s OK not to vaccinate. Hence, they are pro-polio. It’s not me saying so. It’s a hundred years of scientific record. Vaccines work. They limit needless suffering. There is no autism-vaccine link. But the more legitimate physicians say this, the more those who “believe” in Jenny McCarthy’s snake oil will entrench. To casually throw thalidomide into this discussion is a stink bomb, akin to trolls using Hitler analogies for every slippery-slope fantasy.

  5. Lucy Martin says:

    I wasn’t trying to equate vaccinations with thalidomide.

    My point – which I am quite comfortable making – is that science, including medical science, does make mistakes. Or discovers things that refute pervious best practices.

    Everyone is entitled to weigh that as they will when evaluating best available evidence.

  6. Walker says:

    The thing is, Lucy, that in the MMR vaccination case, Science, with a capital “S”, didn’t make a mistake. A single researcher with a conflict of interest (he had received £55,000 from Legal Aid Board solicitors seeking evidence to use against vaccine manufacturers) wrote a bad paper, and the media and politicians with an ax to grind, pounce on it. That’s not Science speaking!

  7. oa says:

    Lucy, you say immunizations can be “taken too far,” offering no evidence for this, and then throw in a line about distrusting science using thalidomide as your example. Pardon me if I read an equivalence into this. And yes, people are entitled to weigh in on, well, anything. But in this post, you seem to dismiss best available evidence.
    There is no evidence that avoiding immunization refutes the successful history of immunization. Quite the contrary, as pointed out in the article on which this post is based.

  8. The Original Larry says:

    I enthusiastically second Lucy’s point. oa, it was you saying people who oppose vaccinations are pro-polio, you said it a few moments ago and then tried to say it was a hundred years of scientific record. Your “logic” is as flawed as your timeline vis-a-vis polio vaccines. Opposing something does not make one a supporter of all possible related outcomes. How about people who oppose the indiscriminate use of antibiotics? Does that make them pro-infection? Antibiotic resistant infections are further examples of the unintended consequences of blindly accepting “science”. It just shows that there isn’t only one way to look at things, no matter what you say.

  9. Walker says:

    OK, Larry, point taken– being anti-vaccine isn’t the same as being the same as being pro- the disease that the vaccine would prevent. But being opposed to the indiscriminate use of antibiotics is not the same as being opposed to antibiotics: it is the commercial misuse of antibiotics that is the problem, not the science of antibiotics. Science is the source of the studies showing that the overuse of antibiotics is leading to resistant super bugs.

    As for the parallel to thalidomide, that was fully fifty years ago. Medical science has come a long way since then, and it is still a difficult science at best– after all, you really can’t do the kinds of experiments on people that would be required to carry out the full scientific method. But that still doesn’t mean that it is rational to ignore the settled results of heavily replicated, peer-reviewed research, especially when the alternative view is based on a handful of irreproducible studies.

  10. Lucy Martin says:

    Boy, where to start? (By which I mean the conversation is now touching on several different ideas/arguments/critiques.) And no complaints, I think the points being raised are good ones.

    To repeat, my linked-but-not-stated reference to thalidomide was NOT intended as a direct comparison to vaccines. For anyone who was curious, the link provided a cautionary tale of science sometimes being mistaken, or being mistakenly applied.

    Although what I am about to mention isn’t necessarily relevant to the point in question, it may surprise some to learn that thalidomide not some 50 years old mistake that is long dead & buried. See “Brazil’s new generation of Thalidomide babies” from the BBC, July 2013. The article details the problem of using thalidomide to treat leprosy, which sometimes results in modern thalidomide babies. An example of balancing risks and benefits in an imperfect drug.

    Oa reasonably wonders if I can justify my (personal) concern that too much is being attempted with vaccinations. Without being an expert, or claiming others should agree with me, I think the chicken pox vaccine could be a mistake. (Possibly others too, I haven’t studied them all.)

    Why? Because chicken pox in childhood is usually survivable and provides lifetime immunity. I have met adults who contracted chicken pox as adults, when it’s way, way worse. (One told me it was so bad he “wanted to die”.) Does the chicken pox vaccine provide life-long immunity? No, it sure doesn’t.

    It is often presented as a solution to the problem of how inconvenient it is to care for a child with chicken pox when they can’t go to day care, or school, while sick or infectious.

    Now, I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have a child sick at home who will never get chicken pox again (and will provide herd immunity by having had that disease) over some potential time-bomb that was built around the concept of “Hey, this should work – well, we hope it might. Let’s just assume it will and go for it!”

    It’s more anecdotal than deeply scientific, but here’s a story from NPR in which pro-vaccination parents question if kids should really get the more than 20 (!) different vaccines now recommended in infancy. It also talks about the imperfections of the current chicken pox vaccine.

    Never forget that there’s money in them thar shots. I suggest parents beware of ones that seem driven by a profit motive. Hey, I like science. But what about the elephant in the room? Science is always a work in progress and unbiased research is often (usually?) underfunded. Pharmaceutical companies have been known to fund research, skew research or fail to do adequate research. The use of questionable or biased studies and heavy marketing in modern medicine are serious issues, full stop.

    I thought this post was written as a pro-vaccination piece, with mild caveats. Personally, I am a grateful beneficiary of polio vaccinations. (Which were dropped on sugar cubes when I got mine in the early 60s). Our son got nearly all (but not every one) of the vaccinations recommended in his youth. I survived childhood measles and chicken pox and value the fact I need never worry about either one again.

    Oa, with respect, are you really saying everyone should line up for each shot that comes down the pike? That because some vaccines provide a clear net benefit, ALL must be good?

    If so, I would defend your right to make that choice, and wish you nothing but good health.

    But I reserve the right to assess risk-benefit and reliability issues for myself.

    Perhaps you do too, in which case we are not so far apart on this as your initial objections suggest.

  11. oa says:

    I am totally at odds with you, respectfully, Lucy. Because giving any credence to the antivaxxers clouds the issue, and is the reason measles is no longer eradicated, and whooping cough is again killing kids, and polio will be back. it’s an avoidable, tragic mistake. You were careless here, IMO. Had you provided the evidence in comments that you did in the comments, I’d have less of a problem. You didn’t. And so we’re far apart.
    And Larry, I wasn’t talking about the history of polio vaccines. I was talking about the history of vaccines. And, yes, I’ll grant you, i was wrong saying 100 years. I should have said 1,000 years:
    Discounting the science here is upsetting, because it’s an easily resolved life-and-death issue. And there aren’t a lot of those.

  12. Lucy Martin says:

    Thank you for the reasoned dialog, oa.

    I respect the desire to eradicate preventable diseases and your conviction that vaccination provides the best known path toward that goal.

    It is a sensitive issue. Not something easily explored or justified to everyone’s satisfaction. For example, I’m concerned it would actually be unscientific to quash anything that might give credence to the antivaxxers.

    Science had to be open to facts which challenge conventional wisdom. (Verifiable, repeatable facts! Not rumor, coincidence or wishful thinking. As is too often used by the anti-vaxxers.) Conversely, an atmosphere that says something is totally settled and no one may question or criticize strikes me as dangerous.

    I probably should have said somewhere that my stance is shaped by how this larger topic looks through the lens of history.

    So many medical practices have been defended as totally appropriate – only to be discredited later on. Other practices do appear to be correct and are only revalidated and advanced. The trouble is, medicine doesn’t always know which will stand the test of time and additional evidence.

    I favor being well-informed, with healthy, evidence-based skepticism …. along with the realization that no one, no system has all the answers that will remain unchangeably true from here to eternity.

    Some vaccines have been reliably proven to be safe and good. (I consider that a true statement.) But it does not follow that all vaccines are therefore safe and good. If that reasoning counts as giving aid and comfort to antivaxxers I’m afraid that leaves me guilty as charged.

    However clumsily, I was hoping to include a different point: beware the arrogance of perfect knowledge, whoever claims to have that.

    I think I’ll stand down for a while and let others weigh in, knowing full well I may be wrong too.

  13. The Original Larry says:

    “beware the arrogance of perfect knowledge, whoever claims to have that.”

    Well said!

  14. Lucy Martin says:

    Well, I’m back again, after sleeping one of oa’s complaints. (“To casually throw thalidomide into this discussion is a stink bomb”) And I’ve concluded he has a valid point.

    I wanted to skewer the notion that one can always rely on conventional medicine to get everything right. Which I bolstered with an over-the-top example. (Because powerful symbols are a fast, easy way to say a lot quickly.)

    That may have veered into sensationalism, an irresponsible thing to do in close proximity to a parallel discussion about long-tested vaccinations.

    The points I wanted to make remain unchanged, but I could have made them in a better manner.

  15. dave says:

    It is interesting to see mirrored in this conversation the arguments used by creationists and climate science deniers.

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