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Monday, 26 May 1997
Page: 3993

Mrs ELSON(4.56 p.m.) —I am very pleased to support this motion put forward by my colleague the member for Stirling (Mr Eoin Cameron) on the very crucial issue of immunisation. As a mother of eight and a grandmother of four, it is a subject that is very near to my heart. I am proud to be part of a government that is working towards raising Australia's appalling immunisation levels.

I note that, at the time our plan to tackle immunisation was announced, the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Beazley) commended us on this initiative. We certainly welcome that bipartisan support. It is, however, surprising to me that for the 13 years that Labor was in government they were aware of our declining immunisation rates and did absolutely nothing to rectify the situation. To my mind this is sheer neglect, for nothing can be more important to our society and our nation than the welfare of our children.

It seems incredible to me that any government could let immunisation rates in this country fall to such a shocking level—just 53 per cent of our children fully immunised, fewer than in many Third World countries. That is made all the more incredible when you consider that just two per cent of parents have a conscientious objection or serious contra-indications to immunising their children.

The government's plan will provide incentives for the 45 per cent of parents who, for various reasons, are failing to complete their children's immunisation. Our plan is very practical. It is a broad based approach which involves greater participation for general practitioners, increased community education programs, incentives and awards for state governments which raise immunisation levels and the incorporation of the maternity allowance and child-care assistance to focus parental attention on the need to immunise. What is more, parents will get an extra $68 as part of the new two-stage maternity allowance when their child is fully immunised up to 18 months of age. So parents are financially better off under our plan and, most importantly, our children are protected from harmful diseases.

Let there be no mistake about it: this is a serious matter. These totally preventable diseases can kill. That is the whole point of this plan: it is not just about attaining a percentage figure for the sake of it; it is about saving children's lives and protecting them from unnecessary suffering. As a mother, I know too well the anxieties that many parents feel when they take their child to be immunised for the first time. We have all heard stories of severe adverse reactions. It appears that they always attract an inordinate amount of media coverage. The fact is that immunisation is important, it is safe, and there is only a very minute risk involved which is far outweighed by the benefits.

As a mother, I have also seen how tragic it is when a child is struck with one of these diseases. My second youngest daughter contracted whooping cough at just a few weeks of age—before she was able to be immunised. It is a heartbreaking thing to watch a tiny baby struggling for breath, and her fight to regain her health took many months. I am pleased to say that she made a full recovery, but the memory of just how sick she was and how much suffering she went through is very vivid for all of my family.

Whooping cough outbreaks have been occurring quite regularly in Australia in the past few years—with tragic results in a number of cases. I note that just last week the Minister for Health and Family Services (Dr Wooldridge) issued a warning that a measles outbreak may be on the way, following a serious outbreak in New Zealand.

Australian medical experts predict that if a large measles epidemic took place in Australia we could expect to see about 250 cases of middle ear infection, 400 cases of pneumonia, up to 10 cases of inflammation of the brain and at least one death for every 10,000 children affected.

There can be no greater argument as to why it is vital that we increase the immunisation levels of our children. I join with other members of this House in congratulating the Minister for Health and Family Services on the range of initiatives to address immunisation. As I said before, I am proud to be part of a government that is taking decisive, practical action to tackle this important health problem.