Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Monday, 3 April 2000
Page: 15016

Dr WASHER (2:55 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Health and Aged Care. Would the minister inform the House of the government's recent initiatives to protect Australians from vaccine preventable illnesses?

Dr WOOLDRIDGE (Minister for Health and Aged Care) —I thank the honourable member for his question. There are three initiatives currently under way in the area of vaccines, all of which should be very positive in terms of protecting Australians from the effects of vaccine preventable illness. The first relates to an announcement we made in April 1998, nearly two years ago, that child-care assistance would be linked to a child's immunisation status. Parents were given plenty of warning of this. It is a serious threat, but we are going to carry through with it, and children who are not fully immunised or whose parents have not signed a conscientious objection form will lose access to child-care assistance.

Parents have the right to make the choice of whether to immunise their children or not to immunise their children, but they do not have the right to do nothing. A letter was sent to parents in early February alerting them to this. There were some 65,000 families who had registered for child-care assistance but who had not, on the immunisation register, fully immunised their children. This may overstate the number, because some parents would have registered for child-care assistance but not actually be receiving it. I am pleased to say that since that first letter some 32,000 parents have contacted the childhood immunisation register and have immunised their children. A second letter was sent out in early March. We were to make the cut-off today but we have decided to extend it for one month and send a final registered letter to every one of these 30,000 families, so there will be absolutely no excuse for any parent who does lose child-care assistance for doing absolutely nothing.

It is disappointing to see that the opposition, through their shadow minister for family services and the aged, Senator Evans, putting out a press release last week calling on the government to delay its threat to stop child-care benefits for up to 30,000 children who allegedly have not been immunised. A significant point is that this was sent out on the Leader of the Opposition's fax machine six hours after I made the announcement that we were going to do just that. Here is the opposition, with no policies on immunisation at all but prepared just to tag along and, after we make an announcement, six hours later put out a press release calling on us to do exactly what we have done. Secondly, this press release says, `Labor agrees on the desirability of encouraging immunisation in children but that the introduction of this penalty has been rushed.' Given that it was announced in April 1998, two years can hardly be said to be `rushed'. This is just mindless, petty nitpicking on an area that is exceedingly important.

The second area of initiative in immunisation is that last week I announced that hepatitis B would be added to the immunisation schedule. Hepatitis B is involved in liver disease, particularly chronic liver failure in carriers, and liver cancer. We have decided to give children an injection at birth and then add it to the immunisation schedule at two months, four months and six months. This is a very positive development, flowing on from the National Health and Medical Research Council's recommendations.

But again, I get the same petty nitpicking from the Labor Party, this time from the member for Bruce, saying that children may not get full immunisation as a result of confusion arising from the introduction of the new combination vaccines. This sort of scaring of parents can only contribute to the sort of confusion that we had prior to this government coming in, when 53 per cent of children were fully immunised.

The fact is that, while there may be differences between one state and the other, any doctor can access the childhood immunisation register on the web site or they can make a telephone call and get immediate information, or a parent can write and get the information sent to them in the mail. Your intervention in this is disgusting, outrageous and hypocritical, coming from a member of a government that failed to protect children against the most basic of diseases—a complete abrogation of leadership, a complete abrogation of public health.

With winter approaching, we have influenza A likely to hit Australia. It hit Europe over the Christmas-New Year period; 20,000 people over 65 years of age died in Europe as the result of influenza A. The third initiative is that this year, for the second time in a row, the government is offering free influenza A vaccine to anyone over 65 years of age or, in recognition of the poor health status of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, anyone over 50 years of age. These vaccinations will help to very substantially moderate the epidemic expected in Australia, and I would very much encourage those people who are eligible to have them.