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Parents who don't vaccinate risk losing benefits -

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MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The Federal Government is cracking down on parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. Families who don't get their children vaccinated now risk losing thousands of dollars in benefits.

The Prime Minister has called it "No Jab No Pay" and health advocates says it's the right thing to do to prevent infectious diseases spreading. But some experts say improving education about immunisation is a better way to get people to vaccinate their kids.

Michael Edwards has this report.

MICHAEL EDWARDS: Six years ago David McCaffery and his wife Toni brought home their baby girl, Dana, from hospital in northern New South Wales.

DAVID MCCAFFERY: She was born perfectly healthy, brought her home in an area where there's low vaccination rates.

MICHAEL EDWARDS: It should have been a time of great happiness but instead Dana caught whooping cough and died within a month.

The McCaffery's other children had been vaccinated against the disease, but little Dana didn't get that chance.

The horrible experience turned David and Toni McCaffery into passionate advocates for childhood vaccination. They believe parents who choose not to have their children vaccinated are being misled.

DAVID MCCAFFERY: Those people have a choice to vaccinate or not. But it needs to be based on factual information that clearly states how dangerous these diseases can be and how vaccination helps prevent it. And a lot of people get that information from sources that aren't reputable.

MICHAEL EDWARDS: Australia has vaccination rates of more than 90 per cent for children aged one to five. But over 39,000 children aged under seven are not vaccinated because of their parents' objections - an increase of more than 24,000 children over the past 10 years.

Many fear vaccines cause autism despite the fact these claims have been disproven repeatedly.

Now though the Government is cracking down on "conscientious objectors". It will now hold back childcare rebates worth up to $15,000 annually for those who refuse to vaccinate their children.

Dr John Cunningham is surgeon who is also a prominent pro-vaccinations advocate.

JOHN CUNNINGHAM: This is targeting the people who make the conscious decision not to support the health of society.

MICHAEL EDWARDS: To register as a conscientious objector parents must take a Medicare form to a doctor to receive counselling about immunisation. The doctor has to then sign the form which is then sent to the Federal Government.

According to pro-immunisation groups the highest rates of parents not immunising their kids are found in Sydney's affluent eastern suburbs and the northern coast of New South Wales.

JOHN CUNNINGHAM: It's based on fear and misinformation and perhaps a sense of entitlement.

MICHAEL EDWARDS: Exceptions will be made for those who object on religious grounds but they'll have to registered as members of an official religious body. Pro-vaccination groups say they're yet to find any genuine religious groups who are anti-immunisation.

Some health experts aren't so sure the new policy will actually increase the immunisation rate though. Dr Julie Leask, a public health expert at Sydney University, says many people aren't vaccinating their children because they miss medical check-ups and have a lack of education.

JULIE LEASK: The best way to increase our immunisation rates is probably through a raft of other measures that target the families who are not up to date unwittingly, rather than punishing those who are dead set against vaccination.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Dr Julie Leask from Sydney University ending Michael Edwards's report.