A group of anti-vaccine campaigners has been seeking comment from Australian political parties on policies that encourage vaccination.
The anti-vaccination movement, in its current form, seems to stem from a single publication by a discredited doctor who intentionally falsified results for his own financial gain. This dangerous movement suggests that vaccination is an issue with two sides that deserve equal consideration. This is false, and the misguided people and dangerous groups who campaign against vaccines endanger lives.
The overwhelming weight of scientific evidence indicates that vaccines are safe and effective. Vaccination has eradicated smallpox and rinderpest, and immensely reduced the burden of dozens of other diseases.
Anti-vaccination groups often point out that deaths from measles and polio were in decline when vaccines for these disease were introduced. Indeed, supportive care and technology such as the iron lung allowed many children to survive these diseases. Some of these survivors suffered permanent effects like sight or hearing loss, or paralysis. Vaccination protects children from these risks.
Some people are unable to be immunised for health reasons. Also, while most people who receive a vaccine against a disease will become immune to that disease for many years, on an individual basis vaccination is not 100% effective.
This is why it is vital for everyone to get vaccinated if it is safe for them to do so. The majority who gain immunity from vaccination protect the young, elderly, immunocompromised and allergic who cannot have the vaccine. This is herd immunity. Those who are not protected by vaccines are protected by the buffer of vaccinated people surrounding them.
The role of government
The Science Party supports measures that encourage parents to vaccinate their children according to the recommended schedule. The task for legislators is to determine which policies will achieve this.
No Jab, No Pay
(Background available here.)
(Please also see our update below regarding this section.)
Requiring up-to-date vaccination for financial rebates sounds like it would boost vaccination rates. However, it is a blunt instrument and doesn't take into account that many vaccine refusers truly believe that vaccines are harmful, and some families lack access to vaccinations. No monetary incentive will convince a parent who genuinely believes that vaccines are dangerous to have their child vaccinated; and parents who lack access will not suddenly gain it. Some parents have already struggled with payments due to errors in vaccination records.
The Science Party believes education is the best approach as it addresses the root of the problem: fear of vaccines. Prior to 2016, vaccine refusers needed to sign only one form (and have it co-signed by a doctor) to receive all three Family Tax Benefit A Supplement payments. Instead of removing this loophole completely, we should first try increasing the effort required to obtain an exemption, by requiring a doctor's signature in lieu of each vaccination.
This would increase the opportunity for education about the benefits of vaccination as well as help health authorities keep track of vaccine refusal.
No Jab, No Play
(Background available here.)
It is reasonable for parents of children who cannot be vaccinated for health reasons, and parents who have done the right thing and had their children vaccinated, to expect that all children at their child's care facility are vaccinated. The "No Jab, No Play" policy has the unfortunate effect of isolating unvaccinated children, but in this case the health of the many should not be endangered because a few parents have made the choice to forego health care for their child(ren).
The rights of parents with regards to their children are not absolute; children are not chattel, but human beings with rights, and the Science Party believes access to health care is a right. There is precedent in Australian law for parents' wishes being overridden in the best interests of a child's health. While the Science Party believes that vaccination should not be compulsory, due to the difference between preventative medicine and emergency care, we do believe that refusing vaccination for one's children is denial of care.
The Science Party commends the Australian Sex Party for publicly responding to the anti-vaccine organisation's enquiry and siding with the science on this issue, rather than tip-toeing around the question.
Regarding No Jab, No Pay, it has been brought to our attention that our stance (promoting greater GP contact and education instead of cutting welfare payments) is counter to new evidence that shows the policy is already having a positive effect. In particular, the Immunisation Centre at the Royal Children's Hospital has seen large increases in vaccination catch-up plans (more than 300 plans received in Jan-May 2016 compared to approximately 30 plans during Jan-May 2015). This data was presented at the Public Health Association of Australia National Immunisation Conference in June 2016.
Also, depending on the reason for vaccine refusal, attempts at education can cause refusers to simply dig their heels in, making extra GP visits for this purpose a waste of resources.
A reduction in conscientious objector forms in late 2015 was also cited as evidence that the soon-to-be-introduced policy was already having an effect. However, it is also possible that vaccine-refusing parents who were not heavily dependent on the financial benefits decided to eschew the exemption scheme in its last few months. We are much more interested in vaccination outcomes.
The mention of access to vaccines in the original post was irrelevant, as any families who lacked access to vaccines were already not receiving any benefits linked to vaccination.
We are still a little uneasy about implementing this policy before our health records system is robust enough to accurately keep track of all children's vaccination records.
Our stance was pessimistic, and cautious of both further disadvantaging those children who are already put at risk by their parents'; vaccine refusal, and of fuelling conspiracy theories about so-called "forced vaccination". While we would be interested to know how the policy is perceived in the hardcore pockets of the antivax community, we are happy to be proved wrong about the policy's overall effectiveness.
Update 20/7/2018: Broken links were repaired.