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10 Oct 2016

Photo: AMA President Dr Michael Gannon (r) launches the Australian Academy of Science's Science of Immunisation booklet with Health Minister Sussan Ley and Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty at Parliament House on 10 October, 2016.

The Federal Government’s No Jab No Pay vaccination policy is working to boost vaccination rates, but there is no room for complacency, AMA President Dr Michael Gannon has warned.

Speaking at the launch of the Australian Academy of Science’s The Science of Immunisation: Questions and Answers booklet alongside Health Minister Susan Ley and Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty, Dr Gannon said vaccination had been one of the great success stories of modern medicine and public health, savings millions of lives every year.

Data from the Australian Childhood Immunisation Register showed that 93 per cent of children nationwide were fully immunised at 12 months, 90.7 per cent were fully vaccinated at two years, and 92.9 per cent were fully covered at five years.

But although child immunisations rates in most of the country were above 90 per cent, the AMA President said there was a need to lift them even higher, particularly in areas such as the Gold Coast, the north coast of New South Wales and parts of western Sydney, where they were as low as 86 per cent.

“One of the reasons for vaccine hesitancy or vaccine refusal is the proliferation of material that seeks to link vaccination with ill health,” Dr Gannon told the launch at Parliament House. “While thoroughly disproven, we still see people linking the MMR [measles, mumps, rubella] vaccine with autism. This is genuinely troubling. This claim has been thoroughly and comprehensively disproven.”

Ms Ley said often parents had not kept their child’s vaccination up-to-date simply because of competing demands on their time.

The Minister said the Government was not trying to force people to have their children vaccinated, but the No Jab No Pay policy meant there would be consequences in terms of reduced welfare payments and access to childcare, and was a prod to many to make their child’s immunisation a priority.

According to the Government, the new rules, which came into effect at the start of the year, have resulted in almost 6000 children previously denied vaccination on the grounds that their parents were conscientious objectors being fully immunised, while a further 148,000 whose vaccinations were not up-to-date have been immunised again.

Dr Gannon said the figures showed that the policy was working “extremely well. There are thousands of children whose parents had conscientiously objected [to vaccination] who no longer conscientiously object”.

But he warned the measure will do little to budge “rusted on” objectors, and might have “minimal impact on families in wealthier parts of Australia,” some of which had low immunisation rates.

Objections to vaccination are typically based on claims about safety, including widely and repeatedly discredited allegations that immunisation is associated with autism.

The latest outbreak of anti-vaccination sentiment accompanied plans by the Castlemaine Local and International Film Festival to screen a show claiming that US health authorities have covered up evidence linking a vaccine to autism.

The festival eventually withdrew the film following widespread community outcry, including from Dr Gannon, who said the director of the show was a “charlatan” and “entirely discredited”.

Dr Gannon said vaccines are subject to rigorous safety assessments and surveillance, and are carefully scrutinised before being added to the immunisation schedule.

Though a small number of children suffer mild and temporary side effects from vaccination, serious problems are very rare.

By comparison, the World Health Organisation estimates that vaccinations saves between two and three million lives each year.

More than 70,000 copies of the original AAS booklet have been distributed since its launch in 2012, and Dr Gannon said the latest version would be an important aid for doctors and parents in helping counter the dangerous misinformation being circulated by opponents of immunisation.

Adrian Rollins

Published: 10 Oct 2016