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Thursday, 15 October 2015
Page: 7786

Senator RYAN (VictoriaAssistant Cabinet Secretary) (13:09): I probably should declare at this point, in a personal sense, that I used to work for a company that makes vaccines. I agree with some of the things said by those opposite on the Australian Immunisation Register Bill 2015 and the Australian Immunisation Register (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2015. Mass immunisation has been one of the great public health measures of the 20th century, although it started earlier. In particular, it has removed the scourge of preventable disease, which my generation, luckily, in many ways was the first to avoid. Subsequent to that, there has also been a substantial expansion of the immunisation register to cover conditions which even for me, as a 42-year-old, were not prevented.

I must say that there have in fact been few more damaging campaigns in public health than that of the anti-vaxxers and the completely and utterly discredited allegations regarding the MMR vaccine that came out of a now-withdrawn alleged study in the UK, which has seen the person responsible for that struck off the medical register. Tragically, there are probably deaths attributable to that particular campaign, which has scared the uninformed and provided alleged evidence to those who wish to mislead.

In Australia today we have one of the world's most effective mass immunisation campaigns, and as a parent of a young child I can attest to how effective that is. In my own home city of Melbourne, it is run primarily by local councils, and it very effectively reaches into those communities that have varying levels of socioeconomic access and information, and we have achieved very high rates of penetration, as we have right around the country, albeit with constant challenges in some areas—in particular, access to these services for Indigenous groups. I might say, though, that one of the more disturbing things about the declines in some immunisation rates in Australia is that they tend to come in highly educated and high-income-earning areas—people who, quite frankly, should know better. Some of the most misleading things about immunisation are no longer done by people who do not have access to information and who we seek to educate; they are done by people who seem to wilfully misuse information.

One of the aspects of this register that was commented upon before by Senator McLucas is that it will allow us to study outbreaks, look at immunisation rates and understand why outbreaks happen. I have family experience of this too. Without going into great detail, one of the challenges is that we now have adults getting whooping cough, particularly some of those who work with children, because of lack of immunisation and the falling herd immunity amongst young Australians. In fact, I know of a situation where grandparents were not allowed to see grandchildren because of their exposure to whooping cough, which is a sad moment for any family. It also poses health risks to older Australians, because whooping cough is not something nice to get when you are in your 60s. But, again, this is not happening in areas that do not have access to services. I think most of us will be very interested to see where some of the immunisation rates are falling, because tragically that is happening in areas where it should not be and where, quite frankly, we have not had to have extra efforts at health service delivery because of the education and income level of those involved. Disturbingly, I think that will become more apparent over time.

I must say, however, that I am a bit disappointed in the efforts of a couple of speakers among those opposite to politicise this debate, and I am going to rehash here Labor's record on mass immunisation. It needs to be said that, when the Howard government came to office, it was only through the passion and the dedication of Dr Michael Wooldridge as health minister that our immunisation rates were picked up from levels that were the lowest in the developed world and in some cases approached Third World levels. The Liberal government, from 1996 to 2001 under Dr Wooldridge, made it a significant national health priority to increase immunisation rates to levels above 90 per cent, where herd immunity was rebuilt, because in some parts of metropolitan cities in this country they were collapsing into the 50 per cent range, where herd immunity had completely collapsed. The record of the Labor government under Hawke and Keating on immunisation stood condemned by statistics. So, if those opposite want to talk politics, we will point to the history.

I will also point out that the most substantial expansion in the immunisation register for young Australians—particularly children but also with reference to vaccines for older children, particularly the HPV vaccine, which of course Dr Ian Frazer had such a role in discovering—was undertaken under the Howard government. The most substantial expansion in the vaccines register and the free vaccines register in this country's history were undertaken under the Howard government, and this is a record which the Liberal-National coalition proudly stand by. With those comments, I commend the bills to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bills read a second time.