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AMA approves Govt jab at anti-vax parents

The AMA has backed the Federal Government’s move to rip childcare and welfare benefits from parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated, while emphasising the need for greater parent education.

AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler said that although children should not be “punished” for the decisions of their parents, an increase in the number of people 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.”

Parents who conscientiously object to the vaccination of their children could be up to $15,000 a year worse off after Social Services Minister Scott Morrison announced they would lose their entitlements to a range of Government subsidies and benefits.

Under current arrangements, parents who lodge a conscientious objection to vaccination are granted a special exemption from the immunisation requirements of the Child Care and Family Tax Benefit Part A schemes, giving them access to childcare subsidies worth up to $205 a week, a $7500 annual childcare rebate and a tax supplement worth up to $726 a year.

Mr Morrsion said there had been an alarming jump in the past decade in the number of children not immunised because their parents claimed to have a conscientious objection to vaccination, from around 15,000 to 39,000.

He said there would still be exemptions from vaccination on medical and religious grounds, (though adding there were only a “very, very small number” of religious groups that had registered an objection) but those with a conscientious objection would no longer have their choice subsidised by taxpayers.

“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. “If they [conscientious objector parents] choose to not do that, well, the taxpayers aren’t going to subsidise that choice for them.”

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).

Claims that vaccination is linked to autism have been scientifically discredited, but anti-vaccination groups continue to peddle misinformation about the safety and risks of immunisation.

A/Professor Owler said there were occasional instances of adverse reaction 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