Immunization Promotion and Education: collaborating to increase vaccination rates

Immunizations help protect against flu and other illnesses. Hear from the team that shares vaccine facts with parents and kids.


Members of the Public Health Agency of Canada’s (PHAC) Immunization Promotion and Education (IPE) team proudly display some of the promotion and education materials they use to inform Canadians about the importance of vaccination. From left to right: Sean Hinatsu, Julie Guertin, Martine Dubuc, Iman Hassan, Christina Comeau, Carolyn Lacaille.

Vaccines are a cornerstone of public health. Their use has significantly contributed to the prevention and control of infectious diseases in Canada and around the world. In fact, it is estimated that vaccines prevent 2-3 million deaths worldwide every year. Without vaccination programs, the risk of transmission of a number of diseases—such as meningococcal disease, HPV, hepatitis B, influenza, tetanus, and diphtheria—would increase considerably.

Unfortunately, in recent years, misinformation about the risks of vaccines has eroded public trust in vaccination and contributed to reduced vaccination rates around the world, including in Canada. Lower vaccination rates mean more Canadians will become infected and get sick or die from diseases that could have been prevented.

That’s why the work of the Immunization Promotion and Education (IPE) team at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is so important. The role of this team is to translate the science behind vaccination to make it clear and understandable for Canadians.

In particular, this means reaching the “vaccine hesitant” with information about why immunization is critical to staying healthy.

“We need to be innovative about how we talk to people and make sure we speak directly to their concerns,” says Martine Dubuc, Senior Nurse Advisor and team lead of PHAC’s IPE.   

This means conducting surveys and research to get at the heart of people’s concerns with vaccination.  

IPE works closely with colleagues in the Centre for Immunization and Respiratory Infectious Diseases who do research and surveys that inform the team’s education and promotion activities. For example, the childhood National Immunization Survey asks parents what they think about vaccines and whether they think they are safe, and if not, why?

“The answers pretty much tell us who our target populations are and what the issues are,” says Dubuc. “And they give us a good idea of what the messages need to be.”

It also means working with a variety of partners, including marketing and communications colleagues, and others to counter anti-vaccine messages on social media platforms, through print and digital media.

IPE runs a number of flagship activities to spread their key message that vaccines are safe and they work. Currently, IPE is midway through a three-year national advertising campaign on childhood vaccination aimed at parents of young children and women who are, or expect to become, pregnant, to build resilience against misinformation on vaccine safety and importance. The team also leads an annual seasonal flu immunization campaign targeting groups such as seniors over age 65 who are especially vulnerable.

Healthcare practitioners can be challenged to understand the complex vaccine recommendations and to communicate them effectively with their patients. IPE’s educational materials, such as A Parent’s Guide to Immunization, help enable discussions with patients. The team also piloted a webinar this fall to enable dialogue between immunization experts and healthcare practitioners across the country, an initiative that promotes better understanding at all levels of seasonal risks and recommendations.

IPE also works with the Pan American Health Organization to promote vaccination during National Immunization Awareness Week every April and offers further learning opportunities by co-sponsoring a biennial national immunization conference for up to 1000 stakeholders. IPE’s innovative partnering with the Canadian Public Health Association to co-sponsor this meeting has enriched the conference program and reduced costs for the Agency from $1.3 million to $350,000.

The team took some time away from their work to talk about what they do.

What makes your team work so well?

“We all bring different experiences to the team—nursing practice, project management, communications, and technical wizardry—but we share an ability to think creatively, and we all appreciate the subtleties of communication,” says Dubuc.

“We are also tapped into international and national networks of information, national associations, vaccine research and talk to researchers pursuing work not yet published so we have a view on what may be coming. We go to professional meetings and make friends, and those informal relationships can turn into relationships with key organizations.”

“We like to try new ideas and that has opened doors,” Dubuc continues, pointing out that a penchant for experimenting led the team to participate a web optimization exercise to identify gaps in their web site. Armed with useful feedback, they were able to reorganize the site and add visual elements to make the information more efficient and accessible to the public.

What are your challenges?

“Overall, it’s simplifying the amazing knowledge and information at the technical and scientific level,” says Dubuc. “When we create a guide or other product, the experts see the intricacies in every statement. Our challenge is to take their great work and explain it so your neighbour can understand it while respecting the level of accuracy the experts want. The messages we create also need to help healthcare providers talk to their patients. So we push the experts to answer the why behind the what because patients ask questions; they want to know what evidence is behind the advice.”

What makes you feel good about the work you do?

The answer to this question depends on who from the IPE team you ask.

  • “After a lot of hard work to create a product in a way that’s useful for Canadians, to hold it in my hands and know that as a practicing public health nurse a short while ago, I could have used it to help me in conversations with a patient, that’s when I feel good.” Julie Guertin
  • “At a recent conference when the CPHO [Chief Public Health Officer] spoke about our Parents Guide to Immunization during the speech, that was a significant moment for our group.” Christina Comeau
  • “When I go to my doctor’s office and see our latest products available for patients, it’s satisfying.” Carolyn Lacaille

Fast Facts about Immunization

  • Publicly funded routine vaccination programs introduced in Canada since 1930 have reduced or eliminated many vaccine-preventable diseases that once caused widespread illness and death among children.
  • Smallpox was an infectious disease that caused high fevers, painful, red blisters and killed millions of people around the world. Vaccines completely wiped out smallpox in the late 1970s, and that's why we no longer need a smallpox vaccine.
  • Polio caused paralysis and deformity, and affected over 5,000 Canadians a year. Thanks to vaccines, Canada has been polio-free for more than 20 years.
  • A community immunization rate of 95% provides “herd protection” for the vulnerable: infants who are too young to be immunized and those who are not able to be immunized for medical reasons.
  • Disease outbreaks can still happen if there are groups of people who aren't vaccinated.
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