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Immunisation data pinpoints communities at risk

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The latest release of Australia’s childhood immunisation and HPV immunisation rates show a wide variation of uptake across communities.

While new data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) confirms childhood immunisation is increasing, Australians continue to fall short of the 95 per cent national goal. 

Nationally, 93.5 per cent of all children aged five were fully immunised in 2016–17. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged five had a higher national immunisation rate, of 95.7 per cent.

“The greatest improvement was seen in the Central Queensland, Wide Bay and Sunshine Coast Primary Health Networks (PHN) area, which rose from 91.6 per cent in 2015–16 to 93.3 per cent in 2016–17,” said AIHW spokeswoman Tracy Dixon.

“Despite the majority of Australian children being immunised, it’s important that we don’t become complacent. We need to maintain high immunisation rates to protect the vulnerable groups in our community.” 

Vaccines have played a big part in helping halve the number of child deaths since 1990. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimate vaccines save 2-3 million lives each year.

Importantly, the new AIHW data helps to identify where Australian communities of low immunisation are. Categorised across Australia’s 31 PHN, the data shows variation in immunisation rates that range, from 98 per cent in the Nepean Blue Mountains, NSW to 89.8 per cent in Western Victoria, for example.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said the Government would strategically use the new data to target geographical areas with low immunisation rates and identify the 10 per cent of Australians there who have some doubts or uncertainties about it.

“They’re the areas we’re focusing on and, in particular, now we’re able to micro-target through Facebook, through Google, through GP practices,” he said

The Government currently targets areas of low immunisation through the Get the Facts campaign, which seeks to provide parents, through a range of platforms, with evidence based information on the benefits of immunisation.

“The messaging here is very, very clear, that immunisation is both safe and it saves lives,” Mr Hunt said.

The effectiveness of the Government’s No Jab No Pay policy is to increase vaccination rates has been supported by another report that shows an increase in an uptake in Australia of a vaccine containing measles.

The National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS) report found the proportion of children fully immunised at one and five years of age had reached the highest levels ever recorded in mid-2016 (at 93.9 per cent and 93.5 per cent respectively), just after the introduction of the No Jab No Pay policy.

Dr Frank Beard, public health physician, and head of coverage and surveillance at NCIRS explained: “While Australia has been certified free of local measles, we need to maintain high immunisation rates as we are constantly at threat from measles coming into the country from overseas and spreading locally.”

He added that: “Measles catch-up vaccination in adolescents is particularly important, as recent outbreaks have disproportionately affected this age group due to inadequate vaccination.”

Last year Europe faced a four-fold increase in measles, with 20,000 cases and 35 lives lost. 

“Every new person affected by measles in Europe reminds us that unvaccinated children and adults, regardless of where they live, remain at risk of catching the disease and spreading it to others who may not be able to get vaccinated… a tragedy we simply cannot accept,” warned Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

The other part of the AIHW data released related to HPV vaccination rates and showed an increase for both girls and boys in the uptake of the HPV vaccine among Australian teenagers.

Professor Karen Canfell from Cancer Council Australia welcomed the increase: “As well as helping protect girls against cervical cancer in the future, increasing rates of vaccination across both teenage males and females will help reduce our population’s overall risk of a range of cancers linked to the HPV virus.”

Unfortunately, boys are falling behind in the fight to eradicate HPV. Nationally, 80.1 per cent of girls aged 15 were fully immunised against HPV, compared to only 74.1 per cent of boys aged 15.

Mirroring the childhood immunisation rates, the AHWI data also revealed: where you lived effected the likelihood of being vaccinated. HPV immunisation rates ranged from 85.6 per cent of girls fully immunised in Central and Eastern Sydney (NSW) to 69.2 per cent in Tasmania.

“It is concerning that one in five teens still aren’t directly protected through vaccination and there are some communities where uptake remains lower. We need more research to understand these trends,” Professor Canfell said.

She also believes both vaccination and cervical screening are necessary to combat HPV. 

“To further work towards a future without cervical cancer, we encourage parents to ensure their teenagers get vaccinated, and we recommend all eligible women participate in cervical screening,” she said.

Australia was the first country to introduce a free HPV vaccine program, starting with girls in 2007, and including boys from 2013.  Later this year the new HPV vaccine is being rolled out which protects against additional strains of HPV making it even more effective.

Details about the AIHW report can be found here: https://myhealthycommunities.gov.au/our-reports/immunisation-rates-for-children/march-2018 

And here: https://myhealthycommunities.gov.au/our-reports/HPV-rates/march-2018

MEREDITH HORNE

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