SPEECH ON THE AUSTRALIAN IMMUNISATION REGISTER AND OTHER LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL 2017

I chose to speak on the Australian Immunisation Register and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 today because, like every member of this place, I receive regular representations from constituents who object to their children being immunised. I wanted to take the opportunity to make a very clear statement about my views and why I have some deep concerns about others who provide succour and comfort to those who would seek to peddle dangerous misinformation about the impact of our national vaccination program.

I am pleased to say that the group of objectors who approached me—and, I am sure, every other member of this place—is very, very small. Perhaps their concerns are heartfelt, but they are misinformed. To be clear, we do know that there are a very small number of people, a very small number of children, who are unable, because of their own medical complications, to safely receive an immunisation. This legislation and other pieces of legislation on this matter deal with those issues. But I would like to set out in a very clear and concise way why I believe it behoves every member of this place to support with full voice our national immunisation program.

 

Australia has a very long and proud history of vaccination and public health, stretching back to 1804, when the first smallpox vaccination was administered in an Australian colony. It is hard for us to imagine today a time when childhood deaths from disease—including measles, diphtheria and polio—were common. But I suspect most of us in this place will have a family member who can remember such a time. There are still two million to three million childhood deaths each year worldwide from vaccine-preventable diseases. We have made great progress but, like all progress, it is reversible.

 

We made great steps in Australia with the creation of the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories. CSL was established in 1916 to ensure that Australia could produce its own vaccines in the period of the Great War. Supplies of vaccines that we were dependent upon had been interrupted and there was great concern that the Australian health system was going to be at risk if we did not have the capacity to produce our own vaccines. It was the flu pandemic of 1918-19 that created the real impetus and the public

 

support to turbocharge our vaccine program. Estimates vary, but somewhere between 25 per cent of the world population was infected with the Spanish flu. The death toll was estimated to be somewhere between 50 million and 100 million people internationally. In Australia, two million were infected, and somewhere between 12,500 and 15,000 Australians died. Quarantines were set up in towns throughout Australia; our hospital system was quite simply overwhelmed. A vaccination program and popular support for the vaccination program grew out of this national crisis.

 

It is quite true that tens of thousands of deaths of Australian children have been prevented during the 20th century because of our national vaccination program. We can look at a lot of common diseases. Take pertussis or whooping cough; there are regular outbreaks every two to three years of whooping cough. When vaccinations were introduced in 1940, notifications and deaths from whooping cough fell dramatically.

 

Before the vaccination program was introduced, in the 10 years between 1936 and 1945, there were 1,700 deaths from whooping cough; 1,700 young children who lost their lives because of whooping cough. But, because of the vaccination program, less than one per year has died, on average, over the last 20 years.

 

But this is an area where there is no room for complacency, because we know, because of the reduction in herd immunity—in part—that notified rates of whooping cough are increasing in Australia despite high infant immunisation rates. From 2002 to 2008, there were between 5,000 and 10,000 notifications annually. Compare that with 30,000 per annum between 2009 and 2011. It just goes to highlight the point I am making; this is an area where we cannot be complacent.

 

In the area of polio, most Australians will have a family member who, if they are still alive today, is suffering from post polio syndrome. Polio epidemics caused more than 1,000 deaths in Australia between 1946 and 1955. If you didn't die—if you survived—quite often you were left with life-crippling disabilities. That included some children who were ventilator dependent for the rest of their lives. Since the mid-1960s there have only been four deaths from polio in Australia, and there have been no notified cases of wild-type polio for more than 30 years. In fact, in the year 2000 Australia was declared polio free.

 

In fact, Australia has been a very active participant in a worldwide campaign to eradicate polio. We joined up with the target of eradicating polio by 2018. We are well on track to reach this target, but we have to ensure that we do our own job in our own backyard by keeping herd immunity high.

 

In the area of measles, every two to three years there was an outbreak of measles. If you are a child of my generation, you probably caught measles and were confined to bed for a couple of weeks. Complications associated with measles often led, tragically, to a young child losing their life. In the 1980s and 1990s, measles outbreaks occurred again, intermittently, because the vaccine uptake—that is, people having their children vaccinated for measles infections—dropped again. That is another example where the introduction of a vaccine program has all but eradicated a disease, but, when we drop our guard and herd immunity drops, we see the rates jumping up again.

 

We could go through the examples of all the diseases which are a part of our national vaccine program and tell a similar story: deaths in the thousands in the early years of the last century, down to negligible levels today—a result of our national vaccine program. So I argue that the No Jab, No Pay policy is sound. The No Jab, No Play policy is also sound. In this country, it's not illegal to refuse vaccination, but it is reckless.

 

I have had people come to me and argue that they are being discriminated against, that they are being penalised and that they are having certain government benefits or access to certain services refused to them because they are exercising their free choice. They say they are being discriminated against because of that. Well, I simply make the point that benefits, like family tax benefit payments, don't fall from the sky. They're the result of a collective effort of Australians paying their taxes, which provide the revenue for these payments. Quite simply, you can't complain about not getting a collective benefit from the Australian people if you're unwilling to take a collective responsibility to the health and welfare of your fellow Australians, and that's what the national vaccine program is all about. It's about taking a collective responsibility to ensure the collective health and welfare of the Australian population. You cannot complain about the denial of a collective benefit if you are unwilling to participate in a collective responsibility.

 

We are rightly proud of our health system in Australia. We rightly compare ourselves to countries that don't have the benefits that we provide to our citizens. The national vaccination program is a part of it, and it is a responsibility of every member of this House and the other place to take every opportunity that is available to us to point out to the ill-informed objectors that not only are they wrong but using the platform available to them in this place to perpetuate those reckless mistruths is very, very dangerous, indeed. I commend the bill to the House.

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