Monday, 23 February 2015

Millions of lives have been saved by vaccines

I have something my kids don’t have. And what I have is something I hope and pray they will never, ever have to have.

It’s a scar from a vaccination for smallpox.

If you are under 30, you probably will never have that scar. That’s because smallpox was declared eradicated globally in 1980. There are small stocks of smallpox which exist in highly secure labs, but as a disease it has been removed from the earth.



I was less than a year old when I had my first smallpox vaccination. I was vaccinated again on entry to school (Quebec not accepting a certificate from an Ontario doctor) and again when I traveled overseas in the 1970's. I still have the certificates.

Because my mother was a nurse I received every vaccination possible. My mother believed in their effectiveness and wanted to keep me healthy.

I appreciate that.

I did the same with my own children. They had all their required vaccinations and more. When I found out that my drug plan at work covered them for the chicken pox vaccine, we had them receive it. My kids never had chicken pox and, I hope, never will.

Many years ago I knew a funeral director who had suffered from polio as a child. He had done well, relearning to walk with braces. He lived a long and full life. But he was one of the last people I knew who had had polio. I had that vaccination as a child, too. That was one we liked. It was a sugar cube with a pink liquid.

In 1988 the World Health Organization , UNICEF and The Rotary Foundation, assisted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, pledged a global effort to eradicate polio. North America was declared polio free in 1994. Today, Nigeria has been polio free for six months. Unfortunately war in the Middle East, Africa and Asia has resulted in outbreaks in Syria, Somalia and Iraq.

Ongoing vaccination of children is essential. Pakistan accounts for 90% of the world’s cases of polio. Unfortunately there is resistance to vaccination programs in that country. Distrust and ignorance have caused significant resistance to polio vaccination. Seventy five polio workers have been killed since December 2012.

Which brings me to the point. We have a measles outbreak in this province. It needs our undivided attention.

Most seniors are not at risk. Anyone born before 1957 or who has had the MMR vaccine has immunity. It is our children who are at risk.

The good news is that we have high levels of vaccination in Grey and Bruce. Our kids are largely protected, although we could be exposed, as may have happened with a group who went to the “Acquire the Fire” festival in Toronto.

The one thing parents can do is to have their children vaccinated and keep their vaccinations up to date. Polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, mumps, measles and other illnesses can all be prevented or mitigated by vaccination.

If you have concerns, talk it over with your doctor. If you want information, our local health unit can give you good advice on their web page.

On the floor of the atrium of our health unit building is a tile mural showing the major developments in public health over the last few centuries. It includes the development of the microscope, pasteurization and vaccination.

Diseases which once killed millions are now nothing but a memory. Let’s keep it that way by protecting our children.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Let's talk about the "right to die" decision

As I have said many times before, I am no stranger to death. I have been at the bedside of many who are dying and who have died in my presence.

I have learned that death is not as dramatic nor as colourful as it is portrayed in the media. More often it is quiet, peaceful, with life slipping away.

It is from that framework then, that I approach the recent decision of the Supreme Court to uphold the appeal of Carter vs. Canada. Sometimes called the “Right to Die” decision, it has been controversial over the last few years as the case has wound its way through the courts.

I always try to read the actual decision before coming to any conclusions. That is aided these days by the immediate publication of all decisions of the Supreme Court electronically. Just search for the case name and you can read it, too.

Our Supreme Court writes clear and unequivocal decisions. There is a lot of legal footnoting; after all these are very serious matters. But the actual decision itself is well written and easy to understand.

  First, Carter vs. Canada does not give anyone the right to request the right to die at any time, nor does it obligate a physician to perform that task. In fact, the decision is very restrictive in it’s conditions, applying to a specific set of circumstances. The court also places a time line of one year on Parliament to respond to the decision of the Supreme Court.

What the court has actually done is, I believe, consistent with the movement of the framework of Canadian law away from an emphasis on “Thou shalt not..” making an act illegal, to a permissive understanding of the law, which says something is allowed except under specific circumstances.
In that way Carter vs. Canada is echoes the approach the court has taken on abortion; it is a medical matter, not a criminal matter.

The court has also acknowledged that physicians are not of one mind on the issue. The court makes clear that “...In our view, nothing in the declaration of invalidity which we propose to issue would compel physicians to provide assistance in dying.”

The court goes on to say “...that a physician’s decision to participate in assisted dying is a matter of conscience and, in some cases, of religious belief. They go on to say “...the Charter rights of patients and physicians will need to be reconciled.”

The court has not interfered with the responsibility of Parliament. Instead they have clarified a critical issue and laid the responsibility for drafting appropriate language and legislation on the desks of our elected representatives.

The next step is really ours. We need to ask our elected representatives at both federal and provincial levels some very tough questions about end of life care.

I have seen good death through effective palliative care. Unfortunately, quality palliative care in Canada is patchy at best. Because there is no national strategy in place, we can not provide a common level of dignity and care for the dying across this country.

That has to change.

In the next year we will be facing an opportunity to have conversations with our elected representatives at the federal level as they seek re-election. I believe this issue should be raised as part of that conversation.

One day we will all die. But we can change the way we respond to death and dying right now. Carter vs. Canada gives us the opening for the conversation.

Let’s talk.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Community, philanthropy are interconnected

Several years ago I acted as the executor to my aunt’s estate. It wasn’t a big job, but it did take time. The estate was not large; indeed, I would describe my aunt’s life, in the end, as not wealthy at all.

What I found, as I went through my aunt’s affairs, was that she was a very charitable person. Living on a very meagre income of Old Age Security, CPP and some very tiny annuities, she found the ability to make a regular donation to two Toronto hospitals which I know had been important to her in her life journey.

One of the hospitals, Princess Margaret, was where she had been treated for breast cancer and with whom she participated in many clinical drug studies. She died there.

I remember my father asking her about a new cancer drug which had been announced. She responded, "That’s last year’s news. I’m already two generation beyond that!"

That’s philanthropy.

David Wilson, in an editorial in in the February 2015 issue of The United Church Observer, points out that the roots of the word "philanthropy" come from the Greek and mean "love of humanity".

When we think of philanthropy, most of us think of big ticket items like an arena, a hospital wing or a university program. And that’s all well and good. But philanthropy is more than that. It’s the small, regular gifts, too.

Wilson goes on in his editorial to report on a conference on philanthropy held in Toronto last year.

A gathering of all the movers and shakers in philanthropy in Canada heard Gordon Floyd, one of Canada’s leaders in understanding the Canadian philanthropy scene, share a lot of bad news.

The number of Canadians who have made charitable gifts has dropped by 24% since 1990. And while the size of gifts increased until 2011, that has now stopped.

What is even more concerning is that 25% of those who make charitable donations do it for one reason; greed. They do it so they can get a charitable tax receipt. Fewer and fewer are giving to charitable causes of all kinds because they want to be philanthropic or they want to show their love of humanity.

Floyd went on to say that he believes the reason for the decline in philanthropy is the decline of religion.

Research hasshown that people of faith give more to charitable causes. According to Statistics Canada, people of religious faith "often have stronger pro-social and altruistic values, which motivate them to give more of their time and money to others."

Philanthropy is not limited to religious charities. People of faith make gifts in many areas of their life.

In addition, Floyd said, society is becoming more insular and less communal. We relate to each other as exclusive clusters of like-minded people, often in virtual communities. And that insular mind is not philanthropic.

Floyd suggested that the solution is not to return to religion but to strengthen partnerships in the community.

I agree.

In Grey Bruce we are no different than Toronto or the rest of Canadian society. I have had conversations with other leaders in the charitable sector. Giving to charitable causes is down and the environment for philanthropy is tough. Charitable organizations have been forced to lay off staff, reduce programs or shut down entirely.

We can make a difference.

I ask you to think about your own level of philanthropy; your love of humanity and how you express it. Your philanthropy matters to this community and to all of us.

I know that people in Grey Bruce are generous when there is an expressed need. But we need to bump it up a notch and be philanthropic in our outlook and in our whole lives.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Peace and Justice report shows how we can do better

What would you do if your hydro was disconnected when the temperature was -18C?
Think it doesn’t happen?
It did in our area, last week. Some of our power companies disconnect people all year round, with no regard for weather or even time of day.
You might ask why they are disconnected. Normally it is for non-payment of bills.
Because people simply do not have enough money to pay their bills.
They may have jobs. Perhaps they are disabled. But with hydro rates they way they are, it makes it really difficult.
The United Way of Bruce Grey’s Utility Assistance program has spent more than $70,000 since the beginning of the year helping people with their utility bills. It’s still not enough.
Something has to change.
That’s why the proposal from Peace and Justice Grey Bruce seeking a living wage in our community is the kind of initiative we need.
They presented first to Owen Sound City Council last week. Peace and Justice Grey Bruce suggests that a multi-faceted approach, saying that tax reform, improving universal access to education (both post secondary and early childhood),direct benefits to those who are struggling, and creative national and provincial strategies to build an innovation economy is the direction we need to move.
They go on to say that in a time of increasingly precarious work, governments need to take the lead to mandate a living wage for those whom they touch.
Municipal employees are already fairly paid. But the municipal governments can also require those with whom they have contracts to pay a living wage as a contract expectation.
A living wage in Grey Bruce is about $16.76 per hour and in Owen Sound, $14.77 per hour. The difference is largely because of transportation costs. This is well above the Ontario minimum wage.
In addition, there is a requirement to increase payments for ODSP and Ontario Works. This is not an option. People can not pay their bills. This is not because they are lazy or meet some kind of stereotype. They do not have enough money to live.
I have said before that January is a cruel month. The lineup and calls we have taken from people looking for help is beyond belief. In order to give people a support cheque before Christmas, the government paid ODSP, Ontario Works and seniors pensions early. Now people have to last an extra week on an already thin wallet.
It’s not right and it’s not fair.
To their credit, the Owen Sound city council has asked for a staff report on the impact of a living wage on the city and its contracts.
While there are those who say the city has no business imposing a higher wage on a contract and telling private business what they must pay their workers, we already have a precedent for that in our minimum wage laws. All the city is being asked to do is set the standard higher and fairer.
If we do not change our thinking now about how we understand wages, work and government support, we will continue to fund food banks, soup kitchens, band-aid housing programs and require ongoing utility supports.
That’s simply not right, just or fair.
I encourage you to read the report of Peace and Justice Grey Bruce on precarious work and a living wage. There is no need for people to have their hydro cut off when it’s -18C outside. None. We can do better for each other. This report shows us how.