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Well-off ignore vaccination message, put kids at risk

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Parents in some of the country’s most affluent suburbs are putting their children and others at risk of sustained outbreaks of serious infections by failing to have their offspring vaccinated, shocking Government figures show.

A report by the National Health Performance Authority has found that more than 75,000 children five years and younger were not fully immunised in 2012-13, with as few as 67 per cent vaccinated in some areas – making local populations vulnerable to outbreaks of potentially fatal diseases such as measles and whooping cough.

According to the NHPA data, there has been a sharp improvement in vaccination rates among Indigenous children, with more than 92 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island five-year-olds fully immunised last financial year – a five percentage point improvement from a year earlier.

Overall, 91.5 per cent of five-year-olds were fully immunised in 2012-13, a 1.5 percentage point increase.

But the report identified significant pockets where vaccination rates were well below the level needed to ensure so-called herd immunity.

In Byron Bay, the proportion of five-year-olds who were fully immunised was just 66.7 per cent, the lowest ratio in the country, closely followed by Brunswick Heads (70.2 per cent).

Other areas with poor levels of protection against disease among young children were the well-to-do Sydney suburbs of Manly (80.4 per cent), Paddington (81.8 per cent), and Neutral Bay (83 per cent), as well as Melbourne’s affluent South Yarra (82.9 per cent), upper middle class Adelaide suburb Burnside (81.7 per cent) and Riverton in Western Australia (81.9 per cent).

In a sign that a small proportion of parents continue to be misled by the claims of anti-vaccination groups, the NHPA report showed that around 15,000 of the 75,000 one, two and five-year-old children were not vaccinated in 2012-13 because their parents were “conscientious objectors”.

AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton said it was a “major disappointment” that so many parents had failed to vaccinate their children.

The AMA and the Australian Academy of Science have been part of an effort, along with the Federal and NSW governments and other public bodies, to overcome ignorance and apathy regarding child immunisation, particularly combating the misinformation spread by groups such as the Australian Vaccination Skeptics Network.

Parents need to ensure their children are fully immunised, or to have an approved exemption, to be eligible for Family Tax Benefit A, and in NSW parents must meet similar criteria in order to enrol their children in child care.

Lobby group The Parenthood has called on governments to close what it considers to be a conscientious objection “loophole” in current laws.
Group Executive Director Fiona Sugden said “it is time for the State and Federal governments to work together to ensure that the recognition of conscientious objectors is finished once and for all”.

“Parents do not want to see the return of old-world diseases that wiped out entire generations of families,” Ms Sugden said. “It is clear that when herd immunity is compromised by people that don’t immunise, it impacts the whole community. This is simply not good enough in the year 2014.”

Adrian Rollins