Well I’m really delighted to be here today at the extraordinary Royal Children’s Hospital here in Melbourne with the CEO, John Stanway, with the Head of Immunisation, Dr Nigel Crawford, and with the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Professor Brendan Murphy.
The Royal Children’s Hospital is one of the world’s great children’s hospitals. It’s renowned for its work in cardiology, oncology, neurology, but also in treating communicable diseases. It’s a research centre, it’s a treatment centre, it’s not just a Victorian, but it’s an Australian treasure that helps to protect lives and save lives.
In the same way, immunisation protects lives and it saves lives. Critically, what it does is it ensures that preventable diseases are prevented.
The history of immunisation in Australia is, since 1932, we’ve had a 99 per cent decrease in preventable deaths from those diseases that are covered by Australia’s National Immunisation Program.
In particular, at the moment we cover 18 different illnesses that could take lives or damage lives. It’s a $450 million a year program. It’s achieved a 93.5 per cent immunisation rate. But we need to do more.
We should be striving to have every Australian child covered that can be covered, that doesn’t need a medical exemption. And there are still a lot of myths around immunisation that the anti-vax movement is putting out.
So today, we are launching our ‘Get the Facts’ campaign to ensure that every Australian child has access to immunisation and is immunised where it’s appropriate. We want to see 100 per cent of Australian children who can safely be immunised, immunised.
This campaign is a confronting campaign. It has the parents of Riley Hughes and Dana McCaffery speaking. These beautiful children lost their battle to whooping cough at one month old. They were too young to be immunised, therefore they depended on herd immunity; the community having been vaccinated, and both lived in areas with low vaccination rates.
The parents tell the story that if their child had had the protection of others around them, then those children should have been and would have been saved.
It’s a lot of courage from Dana’s parents and from Riley’s parents, but it’s the truth about immunisation. It’s safe. It saves lives, and it’s the duty of every Australian family and community to encourage it.
Our campaign will be $5.5 million. It’s targeted through social media at those areas that have the lowest immunisation rates; at those groups within the community that are raising the most questions.
So immunisation saves lives. It protects lives. It’s fundamental, and, of course the great Ian Frazer is helping to lead the campaign.
I’d like to invite the Chief Medical Officer to say a few words, then Nigel Crawford, and then we’ll show the video.
PROF. BRENDAN MURPHY:
Thank you, Minister. Many young parents these days wouldn’t have been around when the scourge of polio saw people in iron lungs. When people, like when I was a young doctor, seeing some of the horrible complications of diseases such as measles.
So we’re targeting this campaign to those uncertain parents who might have heard of, dare I say, fake news from the anti-vax lobbyists, and some of the information that is really incorrect. And they’re very anxious about the future of immunisation, so they need facts.
Well, our research has shown that what people want is facts. They want to understand the true story about immunisation, and that’s what the campaign does.
Immunisation is incredibly safe these days, and it absolutely, as the Minister says, saves lives.
So what we’re encouraging those people who might be a bit uncertain to do is look at this material, go to the website, get the facts, and be of the view that every doctor in the country is, which is that immunisation is an absolutely a critical thing to do to protect your children and to protect the community from clearly preventable disease.
Do you know, polio is now almost eradicated across the world. There’s only a couple of cases left in a few countries, and that’s only because of immunisation. Measles will hopefully go the same way.
Immunisation is one of our most powerful public health tools, and it is very, very safe. So, please get the facts. Thank you.
DR NIGEL CRAWFORD:
Thank you, Minister. It’s a great opportunity to have the Minister and team attend the Children’s Hospital, and, as we mentioned, we’re very supportive of this ‘Get the Facts’ campaign.
We still see children here at the hospital with vaccine preventable diseases, we have children with pertussis and meningococcal disease, and other vaccine preventable diseases. So we still see those cases and really know that we need the herd protection very broadly at the community.
And we also have the benefit here of having an immunisation clinic, supported by both the hospital and the Department, where we actually see families and discuss immunisation queries and questions.
So, this sort of education campaign can really help us support those families and raise that level of awareness.
And the other group that we think it’s really important to protect are those that are more vulnerable - so children with underlying cancers and illnesses sometimes can’t get vaccines, and that’s why that herd protection is so important.
It’s really important that all the people around them are immunised to be protected, so getting the facts and knowing that, at a community level, we have an opportunity to prevent these illnesses is very positive.
So, again, we welcome everyone here to the hospital today, and it’s a really fantastic opportunity through Ian Fraser and the families who have been affected by these diseases to spread the message with more education. Thank you.
Alright. Happy to take any questions on the ‘Get the Facts’ campaign, and, afterwards, on any other topics.
Is there any evidence to show that these kinds of campaigns can change people’s minds that believe that immunisation is bad?
Yes. Our research makes it absolutely clear that people do want the facts. If they have the facts, it gives them confidence, and it gives them the ability to proceed. So this is a research-based campaign directly addressing the concerns that some families may have.
Remembering, of course, that 93.5 per cent of Australian children under five are vaccinated. That needs to be higher, and this campaign comes directly from the research which indicates that the message here, ‘Get the Facts’, is precisely the message to further increase those levels.
What specific areas of Australia aren’t people getting vaccinated enough? Is there any demographics? I understand like in rural Tasmania they have very low vaccination rates. Can you run through a few of those places?
Sure. Some of the areas which have lower vaccinations rates are the Hinterland just inland from the Gold Coast, parts of rural Tasmania, and, in particular, inner city Adelaide. So they’re three of the lowest levels of vaccination in Australia.
What happens is that you can have a message within the community that spreads, and our job is to target those areas to say that that message is false, untrue and incorrect. And, as we’ve seen in Western Australia at the moment in relation to the outbreak at a particular school, there are real risks when you have a community which has a lower level of vaccination than is the herd immunity requirement.
There is some criticism that it’s not necessarily the, it’s more the practicality of getting a vaccine in some regional areas with the permission form system and the hoops and steps that they have to go through. I’ve spoken to doctors who say that that’s one of the main barriers, not necessarily education.
Well if there were any issues, we’re happy to address them. That would be an absolute priority for us. I don’t know if the Chief Medical Officer wants to add any…
PROF. BRENDAN MURPHY:
I think the Immunisation Register is now extremely functional. In fact, it’s just had some enhancements to it from legislation passed last week in Parliament. It’s very accessible to general practitioners, and also immunisation providers.
So, I think there may be some isolated incidences where people have had technical issues, and we’re very happy to address those, but in the main most doctors report it’s working extremely well and it’s very easy to access.
So I think that most immunisations are now done in general practice, and general practitioners are very adept and they’re getting very good at using the immunisation system. So I don’t think that is a real barrier.
Is there any truth to the anti-vax message out there, and is there a major myth that you could quash right now?
PROF. BRENDAN MURPHY:
There is no truth to the stories that are out there. The major myth that I would quash now is the research that was done many years ago that suggested that autism might be related to vaccine. It’s completely false, it was debunked.
That researcher was disciplined, and that paper was withdrawn. But that message is still being peddled by some people out there to try and create fear.
There is no evidence at all that vaccination causes autism, and vaccination in its current environment is incredibly safe, and the risks of vaccination are incredibly low and vastly less than the risks of picking up a vaccine preventable disease.
How frustrating is that for you, that this misinformation is sucking parents in?
PROF. BRENDAN MURPHY:
It is frustrating, and we obviously would like to work with the anti-vax movement, who are a very small number of ideologically driven people for reasons that aren’t clear. We would like to try and present the truth to them.
But more importantly is to get the truth to those people who might be influenced by their message, who might be uncertain, the average person who just wants to do the best thing by their children.
So we feel and believe that this sort of campaign will help address that. That small number of ideologically driven people aren’t as important as getting the message to those parents who might be a little hesitant or wavering.
What’s the average rate of kids who aren’t vaccinated across the board, and how high can that number get in some of these problem areas you mentioned before?
PROF. BRENDAN MURPHY:
Well the average rate across the country is about 93.5 per cent, and clearly we’d like to get to 95 and higher to get good herd immunity.
There are rates as low as in the 60s in some parts of the country, but generally across the board the rates are certainly hugely better than they were 20 years ago.
So I think it is important that we celebrate what we as a nation have achieved, and what the parents and doctors and immunisation coordinators have achieved across the last 20 years.
But we can’t rest on our laurels. We have to keep pushing to get that high herd immunity, as the Minister talked about.
Could I ask, chat to Nigel? Now, Nigel you’re an immunisation doctor, is that…
DR NIGEL CRAWFORD:
Yeah, I’m a paediatrician with…
When you’re faced with questions from parents who say, I don’t want my child vaccinated, what’s your response? How do you win them over?
DR NIGEL CRAWFORD:
Yeah. So it’s about being very open and asking what their questions are around immunisation. I think that’s why this ‘Get the Facts’ campaign is important; it’s important for them to be aware of what the pros of vaccination are, why we give immunisations.
They often have questions about what’s in the vaccine, so what’s the components of the vaccine, what are we trying to protect with those infant schedules. So having a detailed discussion with them about what is exactly is in the vaccine and what the benefits are, why we have a schedule that is set up in the way that it is. We give vaccines at two, four, six and 12 months, and there’s a rationale behind that.
So it’s really trying to explain the schedule, answer their questions, and really get them very confident around that discussion. And then the benefit here at the hospital, we can actually vaccinate them on the day of the clinic. So we can have that detailed discussion and then immunise them here in our immunisation centre, which (inaudible) earlier.
And obviously, in GP practise as well, they can have that discussion and then give the vaccine on the same day. So it’s about taking those questions seriously and working out a plan to come in to that vaccination.
Are there any specific diseases that, if we do drop the ball on vaccinations, they’re at risk of coming back?
DR NIGEL CRAWFORD:
Yeah, so I think measles are probably the example that the Minister mentioned before, there’s been an outbreak of measles in Western Australia. We don’t have measles circulating broadly in Australia, but we do get outbreaks, and if we don’t have that over 95 per cent protection, we can have outbreaks of diseases like measles. So I think measles is a really good example of why we need to have high coverage at a community level.
Minister, just quickly on non-immunisation stuff, if we could? How will you be voting in the same sex plebiscite?
Look, it’s well established on the record that I’ll be voting yes, and I’d encourage all Australians to enrol and to have their say.
How strongly will you be advocating for others to do the same, and will you be joining your Cabinet colleague Simon Birmingham in… oh, you already have, sorry, pardon me that question.
A group of former Australian Medical Association Presidents wants the organisation to retract its support for same sex marriage. Should the AMA do that?
Look, I’ll let the AMA make their own judgements on this. What is interesting is they’ve expressed an opinion on the outcome, but in particular the President, Dr Michael Gannon, endorsed the process of every member of the public having their say.
Do you agree with the AMA that the same sex marriage issue is a public health issue?
Well, as I said, I’ll let the AMA make their own judgements on clinical matters.
But do you think it’s a public health issue?
Well I support it. And I clearly support it, I’ve said so for a long while, and I’ll continue to say so.
If it’s a yes vote, do you think it should be binding on your colleagues?
I think we’ve established a process, so I’m not going to re-litigate that. My approach to this is very clear – we now have a national free vote, I’d encourage as many people as possible to enrol and to vote, to express their opinion. I’ll be voting yes, and I support the yes case.
One final matter, you’re about to get a pay rise. The State Parliament here is about to go through the process, the same process to determine whether State politicians in Victoria deserve the same. Do you think they do? Victorian State pollies?
These matters are matters for the Remuneration Tribunal at the Federal level. I’ll leave it to the State to determine their own approach. And, frankly, I’ve never made a submission to, and never will make a submission to the Remuneration Tribunal. It’s better left in their hands.
Okay, thank you.