Transcript of Minister for Health, Greg Hunt's doorstop in Queanbeyan regarding adding the new meningococcal quad-strain vaccine to the National Immunisation Program, codeine and the Batman by-election.
The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health
Look, I’m delighted to be here today in Queanbeyan with the chief medical officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, and obviously, to have met Dr Kamath and Dr Arya, the practice manager, Anne, and the practice nurse, Cindy, and of course, mum, Jade, and brave little Patrick.
Patrick’s vaccination today is an example of what we’ll be able to do around the country and that is to provide a new meningococcal vaccination ACWY, so, four strains of meningococcal will, for the first time, be treated by the Commonwealth and it will cover 300,000 infants every year.
This is an extraordinary breakthrough in Australian medical treatment, it comes following the decision – only this week – of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee to recommend the listing of the ACWY meningococcal vaccine for the National Immunisation Program.
Meningococcal is a very dangerous disease. We know that there were over 380 cases in 2017 and, sadly, 28 lives were lost. Now, for the first time, the ACWY vaccination will be added to the National Immunisation Program.
On my first day in office, I asked the Chief Medical Officer to investigate and to take all steps to expedite this process, he’s done an amazing job, our medical authorities have done an amazing job in bringing this forward earlier than it would otherwise have been able to have been achieved.
So, this is about saving lives, it’s about protecting lives, it’s about giving beautiful young children such as Patrick, safety, security and their parents, such as Jade, the comfort of mind that their child can and will be safe.
In the end, immunisation saves lives and it protects lives and we’re now adding to the National Immunisation Program with the ACWY meningococcal vaccine.
I’ll ask the Chief Medical Officer to speak.
PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:
Thank you, Minister.
As the Minister said, meningococcal disease is a rare but serious disease that affects a small number of Australians, but if not treated promptly, can be fatal.
Many of us have the bug in our throats, a few per cent, sometimes up to 20 per cent of us have the bug in our throats, but a very rare number of the proportion of people actually get the bug invade and cause nasty disease.
We’ve had vaccination for many years against the C strain of the bug, in the last few years, there has been an emergence of increased numbers of cases of the Y strain and the W strain in particular.
The W strain is the one that’s caused most of the concern of cases increasing both last year and the previous year.
So, as the Minister said, we’re now expanding the vaccination we give routinely to infants at 12 months of age from covering just one strain, the C strain, to these four strains, to provide a much broader level of protection from this time forward.
This is a great development and, I know, one that many people have been keenly awaiting. So, thank you for, and we’re both happy to take questions.
Minister. I believe that some states have actually pushed ahead and funded this vaccine before you guys did.
I think WA did it last week and even complained that the Federal Government might be even dragging its feet, given there were six deaths last year from meningococcal W. Will this cover WA as well and does that mean that they don’t have to spend that $5.7 million?
I suspect that the West Australian Government knew we were about to make the announcement, there was no secret of it, it was well understood that it was due before the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee this week and I think WA made the announcement knowing that, in the end, they wouldn’t have to pay.
Our commitment is to cover every state, every family, every child around the country that is in the vaccine cohort and this is a unique moment in Australian history.
Obviously, one of the things that we take very seriously is the medical assessments, by law, all vaccines have to go through Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee if they are to be either on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme or the National Immunisation Program.
This one, we have expedited and it’s a real recognition of the quality of our research, the standards that we uphold and the ability of the Government to make the commitment to list every single drug that the PBAC recommends.
Can I ask about the Batman by-election?
You’re a senior member of the Liberal Party, what attitude would you take to whether your party actually contest this by-election?
Look, I have spoken with Michael Kroger and I know that the administrative committee of the Party is consulting with the Prime Minister. They’ll make a decision shortly.
But let me be clear here, this will be a test for Bill Shorten on two fronts. One, it will be a test of his ability to hold off the Greens.
We saw in the Northcote by-election, Labor lost the seat. I think that Labor will be under enormous pressure from the Greens.
We can see today that Mr Giles in Victoria is urging a massive swing to the hard left for the ALP.
For mainstream Australians, that just means higher cost of living, whether it’s the private health insurance or their electricity bills. And for business in Australia, that means higher taxes and more regulation, so that would be a disaster.
The second thing, of course, is that Mr Shorten has a responsibility and a duty to stand by and for the constitution.
So far, he has failed to do that. I remember warning, four months ago, that he was a constitutional vandal and a constitutional wrecker. He is still hiding and running a protection racket for three members of his party room who should resign their commissions or refer themselves to the High Court.
David Feeney only got re-elected in Batman because of Liberal preferences. If you vacate the field, doesn’t that mean that the Greens will get up in Batman?
I’ll leave that for Michael Kroger and the administrative committee to decide and then to announce. But what we will see, I think, over the coming months is the slide of the ALP in Australia into the chaos which has always been there over the last three years, but which has not necessarily been exposed.
We can see the outbreak of fighting today with the resignation of David Feeney, we can see the push to the extreme left.
And again, in real terms for Australian families, that means higher costs of living and less opportunity for jobs.
That’s a disaster, a disaster for the Australian economy. But for Australian families, that would mean massive pressure on their daily lives and opportunities.
In the meantime, Bill Shorten should do the right thing, take the Prime Minister’s lead, and where there’s evidence that members are not constitutionally and validly elected, refer them to the High Court or get them to do the right thing and resign their commission.
Can I ask you about codeine?
Sure, of course.
What’s the reaction been, as you see it, as Minister, from both in the public, but do you allay fears from people who think that they’ve being denied an important product?
Well, the first thing is, of course, is that medical authorities made a medical decision for medical reasons to place codeine on the prescription list.
It’s in line with the practice around the world, Australia was one of the late movers on this. And they did it because it was addictive, dangerous, people were dying, the coronial figures show that from over-the-counter products alone, over 100 deaths a year.
And so this was a unanimous decision of the Advisory Committee on Medicine Scheduling in August of 2015 and followed up again in March of 2016 by the same committee as well as by the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Medicines.
So it’s the strongest medical authority backed by the AMA, the College of GPs, the College of Physicians, Pain Australia, the Rural Doctors Association, and so many other organisations.
So, it can be difficult and I’m deeply respectful, but it’s available under prescription to every Australian, subject to the views of the GP, and other alternatives are available, including new ibuprofen and paracetamol combinations over the counter.
I might ask the Chief Medical Officer to talk about the reasoning behind it.
PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:
Yeah. Look, I think generally, this change has been welcomed. More than half the community in survey support it, all of the consumer health forums support it.
The key issue is that these low-dose codeine drugs are not very effective analgesics, they’re not much more effective, if at all, than standard paracetamol-ibuprofen, and yet that they have an addictive property with the low-dose codeine, and we have a small number of about 20 per cent of people who are buying them were using them chronically and inappropriately, and as the Minister said, we were getting over a hundred deaths a year for a drug that really wasn’t of great value.
So, what we’ve been saying to people is that if you were using these drugs just as appropriately as a short-term analgesic, go to your pharmacist, talk to the pharmacist. There are just as effective over-the-counter drugs. As the Minister said, the new ibuprofen-paracetamol combinations are just as good.
If you’re one of those people who have been taking these drugs inappropriately, for prolonged periods, for chronic non-cancer pain, this is a wake-up call.
You should go and see your doctor and get proper, better, best practice pain management, because taking long-term codeine products is not good medicine in the majority of cases.
So, GPs are well prepared to have these discussions, and this is a really good opportunity for people. You should not be using long-term codeine containing drugs for non-cancer pain, except in the most rare circumstances.
Just on that, Panadeine discontinuing their products in Australia, is that a consequence off the back of the new codeine laws?
PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:
I suspect that because these drugs are not of great value, the low-dose codeine drugs, most GPs are probably not going to be prescribing.
They don’t want people to take long-term codeine drugs, and the manufacturers will probably, as they have done in some cases, make it a commercial decision to progressively withdraw some of them, but some are still available and there will be some still available.
But the important thing is that they are actually not very effective analgesics.
My advice is that there are over 40 different products that will continue to be available.
Thank you very much.