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Whooping cough booster faces axe

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The Federal Government may axe the whooping cough vaccine booster for first year high school students as it pulls plans for an Australian Schools Vaccination Register.

An immunisation expert group has been asked to review the pertussis vaccine schedule, including the need for a booster currently being administered to children in secondary school.

The Government has announced that the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) has been asked to “provide advice on the clinical place and effectiveness of the pertussis vaccine schedule, including the pertussis booster currently given in the first year of high school”.

Currently, it is recommended that infants receive a dose of the diphtheria-tetanus-acellular vaccine at two, four and six months of age, with further boosters at 18 months and four years. An additional booster is given between 12 and 17 years.

The review comes at a time when the number of whooping cough cases is in decline – about 16,000 cases have been notified so far this year, well down from the 22,500 infections reported in 2015.

But the decline has come not long after the country’s largest-ever recorded outbreak of the disease, between 2008 and 2012, including 38,732 notified cases in 2011 alone.

The National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance said whooping cough was a “challenging” disease to control because immunity waned over time, and epidemics occurred every three to four years.

The Centre said declining immunity was a factor in the last major outbreak, during which 4408 people were hospitalised, including 1832 babies. Between 2006 and 2012, 11 died from pertussis, all but one of them infants less than six months of age.

The review of the pertussis vaccination schedule coincides with the decision not to proceed with the creation of the Australian Schools Vaccination Register.

The Health Department said it had discontinued the tender process for the creation of the Register following advice about the review of the pertussis booster vaccine for secondary school students and the end, in 2018, of the catch-up varicella vaccination program for adolescents.

The Register was announced in the 2015-16 Budget as part of the No Jab No Pay policy, and was portrayed as vital in helping to controlling infectious disease outbreaks by identifying areas where vaccination coverage was low.

But Health Minister Sussan Ley said it had now been “put on hold…pending further advice from independent medical experts on the vaccination needs of adolescents”.

The Health Department said it was possible that the Schools Register would only hold data on the human papilloma virus (HPV) if the pertussis booster for adolescents was axed and once the varicella catch-up vaccination program ends.

The Health Department said it was now looking at alternatives to the Schools Register, including the inclusion of such data in the whole-of-life Australian Immunisation Register which began operations on 30 September.

It is also in discussions with the Victorian Cytology Service about continuing the HPV Register in 2017.

Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy was keen to assure that these changes would have “no impact on the health of adolescents because the full range of vaccination services are being delivered to the community, and will continue to do so”.

The move to axe the Register has coincided with the release of Government figures showing that almost 200,000 children have had their vaccinations brought up-to-date following the introduction of the No Jab No Pay reforms.

The figures, reported in the Sunday Herald Sun, show that since the reforms were introduced on 1 January, 86,562 families, including 102,993 children, have been denied childcare payments, and $38 million of Family Tax Benefit A benefits have been suspended. Parents of 8896 children are still not meeting vaccination requirements.

But 183,000 children have had their vaccinations brought up-to-date as a result of the program, under which parents face losing Family Tax Benefit A and childcare payments if they let their child’s immunity slip.

Adrian Rollins