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Doctors get carrot, anti-vax parents the stick, in immunisation boost

Doctors will be paid a $6 incentive to chase up the parents of children who have fallen behind on their vaccinations as part of Federal Government measures aimed at boosting immunisation rates.

Health Minister Sussan Ley said an extra $26 million will be allocated in the Federal Budget to the national immunisation program to encourage doctors to identify children more than two months behind on their vaccinations, as well as to develop an Australian School Vaccination Register and upgrade efforts to educate parents.

It has been revealed last year 166,000 children were more than two months behind on their vaccinations, in addition to 39,000 whose parents had expressed a conscientious objection to immunisation, and Ms Ley said the $6 incentive, which would be in addition to the $6 paid to doctors to deliver vaccinations, was part of a “carrot and stick” approach to deepening the country’s immunity to serious diseases.

“I believe most parents have genuine concerns about those who deliberately choose not to vaccinate their children and put the wider community at risk,” the Minister said. “However, it’s important parents also understand complacency presents as a much of a threat to immunisation rates and the safety of our children as conscientious objections do. Immunisations don’t just protect your child, but others as well.”

The announcement came as the Government intensified its crackdown on anti-vaccination parents claiming childcare subsidies and other benefits.

Social Services Minister Scott Morrison has declared parents can no longer claim an exemption from welfare payment vaccination requirements on religious grounds, adding to the scrapping of exemptions for parents who make a conscientious objection.

It means that the only authorised exemption for the vaccination requirements of the Child Care and Family Tax Benefit Part A schemes, which provide childcare subsidies worth up to $205 a week, a $7500 annual childcare rebate and a tax supplement worth up to $726 a year, is on medical grounds.

Mr Morrison said only one religious group, the Church of Christ, Scientist, had a vaccination exemption, and it was not exercising it.

“The Government has…formed the view that this exemption, in place since 1998, is no longer current or necessary, and will therefore be removed,” the Minister said, adding that it will not be accepting or authorising any further applications for exemption from religious groups.

“The only authorised exemption from being required to have children immunised in order to receive benefits, is on medical grounds,” Mr Morrison said. “This will remain the sole ground for exemption.”

The Government’s tough stand has been backed by the AMA, though President Associate Professor Brian Owler said children should not be “punished” for the decisions of their parents and urged greater efforts to educate parents on the benefits of vaccination.

A/Professor Owler said a recent sharp increase in the number of parents lodging conscientious objections to immunisation meant it was “not unreasonable” for the Government to look at new ways to lift the nation’s vaccination rate.

“The number of conscientious objectors has been rising, so that’s why I think it’s not unreasonable for the Government to come up with another measure,” A/Professor Owler said. “I think it should be seen in that light, that it is really another mechanism, another lever to pull, to try and get the vaccination rates up. It’s not going to solve all of the problems, but I think it’s probably a step in the right direction.”

“The overwhelming advice and position of those in the health profession is it’s the smart thing and it’s the right thing to do to immunise your children,” Mr Morrison said.

“While parents have the right to decide not to vaccinate their children, if they are doing so as a vaccination objector, they are no longer eligible for assistance from the Australian Government.”

Child vaccination rates, particularly among pre-schoolers, are above 90 per cent in most of the country, but figures show significant pockets of much lower coverage, including affluent inner-Sydney suburbs such as Manly and Annandale, where the vaccination rate is as low as 80 per cent, as well as northern New South Wales coastal areas.

High rates of immunisation, above 90 per cent, are considered important in providing community protection against potentially deadly communicable diseases such as measles, diphtheria and whooping cough (pertussis).

Objectors regularly claim vaccination is linked to autism. But this has been scientifically disproved, most recently in a Journal of the American Medical Association study which found that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine did not affect autism rates among children with autistic older siblings.

A/Professor Owler said there were occasional instances of adverse reactions to vaccination in some individuals, “but they are by far a minority compared to the overall benefits of vaccination. Vaccination is probably the most effective public health measure that we have.”

While he said the Government’s latest measure might help increase the immunisation rate, it was important to continue with efforts to educate parents about the importance of vaccination and encourage them to ensure their children were covered.

“The anti-vaccination lobby has been very successful in putting lots of rubbish out there on the internet in particular. Often it’s notions that have been completely discredited,” he said. “One of the things we’ve got to keep going with [is] education – encouraging parents, giving them the right messages, and getting them to go to the credible source of information, which should be their family doctor or GP.”

A/Professor Owler said often children were not vaccinated simply because it was overlooked by busy parents, and it was important to ensure people were given timely reminders.

The Government’s changes have bipartisan support and are due to come into effect from 1 January next year.

Adrian Rollins

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