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The anti-vaccination movement: myths vs facts

It’s a divisive, and emotive, topic. We track the history of the anti-vaccination movement and the potential consequences of under-vaccination.

Lisa Herron
July 2017

As a new parent, taking your 2-month-old baby to have vaccines against 8 diseases – some you’ve never heard of – injected into them and hearing their howl of pain is heart-wrenching. Most parents take consolation in the belief that vaccination is safe, effective and important to protect children from diseases that can cause serious health problems. But in some areas, vaccination refusal is high, leaving communities vulnerable to outbreaks of serious diseases.

While the Australian Government is trying to take childhood vaccination rates closer to 100%, a small but proactive group of opponents is encouraging parents to refuse some or all vaccination.

Immunisation in Australia

Australia’s national immunisation program provides vaccinations against 16 diseases. These include serious diseases that in the past caused many deaths, such as measles, diphtheria and whooping cough, and newer vaccines, against the Human Papillomavirus (which can lead to diseases of the genital area, including cervical cancer) and meningococcal C.

Vaccination uptake in Australia is high – just over 93% of five-year-olds are fully covered. But that means 7 out of every 100 Australian children are not. Research has found about half this under-vaccination is due to access (barriers such as lack of transport or limited clinic opening times), and the other half is due to attitudes towards vaccination.

The rise of anti-vaccination groups

Opponents to vaccination have been around since the 18th century, but in the past 2 decades anti-vaccination groups have grown – if not in numbers or membership, definitely in visibility and volume.

Associate Professor Julie Leask, visiting Senior Research Fellow at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, says it’s hard to tell but has observed “a bit of a surge” of anti-vaccination activism in the US and Australia in recent years.

“It could just be that the Internet allows us to see them and their actors more,” she said.

Australian groups like the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network (AVN, formerly the Australian Vaccination Network) and the misleadingly-named Vaccine Information Service say they promote freedom of choice and provide unbiased information and research about vaccination.

These groups harness the Internet and social media to push their views and the stories of what they call “vaccine victims”. The growth of the AVN in the 1990s coincided with a push by the federal government to boost childhood immunisation rates.

More recently, a new coalition – Freedom of Choice against No Jab, No Pay/Play – has emerged in response to government initiatives to increase coverage, protesting against “coercion, manipulation and blackmail”.

Is vaccine refusal on the rise?

If the activism and voice of vaccine opponents has grown, their influence on parents apparently hasn’t. Research shows the proportion of families objecting to vaccination in 2013 was around 3%, the same as it was in 2001.

Dr Bronwyn Harman is a researcher at Edith Cowan University who has investigated the motivations of anti-vaccinators. Dr Harman says the tactics of anti-vaccination groups – arguing we don’t know what is in vaccines or the long-term effects, distrust of government and pharmaceutical companies, and claims a health/natural lifestyle will provide natural immunity – appear to be effective with parents who are wavering.

Why vaccine refusal persists

Vaccine-hesitant parents may be swayed because some of the diseases children are vaccinated against are now uncommon, thanks to the success of our immunisation program. Generations X and beyond have no concept of polio, given the last epidemic was in 1961.

But, while Australia has been declared ‘polio-free’, the risk of polio infection lingers until the disease is wiped out across the world because of the ease of global travel. Measles outbreaks in Australia have been rare in recent years, but the disease is highly contagious. Associate Professor Leask says measles is “like a heat-seeking missile” in people who aren’t fully immunised.

The consequences

The impact of ‘scares’ on vaccine acceptance can have devastating results, as seen in the UK after researcher and former surgeon Dr Andrew Wakefield suggested a link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. Following his statement at a 1998 press conference about his now discredited (and reportedly fraudulent) research, MMR immunisation rates fell (to 80% in 2004), leading to measles outbreaks.

Despite dozens of studies over the past 15 years establishing there is no link between vaccines and autism, the claim persists – most recently by One Nation leader Pauline Hanson on national television.

Vaccine refusal not only puts the individual child at risk. When it clusters in communities, lower coverage means “herd immunity” is lost. The Byron Bay area of northern NSW, for example, had one of the lowest coverage rates in 2015-16 at 72.3%, meaning 1 in 4 5-year-olds were not fully vaccinated. The more people who are vaccinated, the harder it is for disease to spread. Herd immunity also provides indirect protection to the unvaccinated, like infants too young to be vaccinated.

No jab, no pay

That’s why the Australian Government is aiming for as close to 100% coverage as possible. The national ‘No Jab, No Pay’ policy introduced in 2016 requires families to have their children fully immunised in order to receive the Family Tax Benefit Part A end of year supplement, Child Care Benefit and Child Care Rebate.

In the 2017 Budget the government announced a $5 million awareness campaign to promote the benefits of immunisation in anti-vaccination cluster areas where coverage is low, and funding for “catch up jabs” for children who have missed vaccinations. Some states also have ‘No Jab, No Play’ legislation, excluding children who are not fully immunised from childcare services.

One issue on which the opponents and some experts agree is that punitive penalties won’t address the multiple reasons why 7% of Australian children are under-vaccinated. Dr Harman’s research with parents has found No Jab, No Pay is likely to have little effect on non-vaccinators, as they believe they are doing what’s best for their children and aren’t prepared to vaccinate them in order to have welfare payments reinstated.

Given we know that half of the under-vaccination rate is due to access issues, Julie Leask says improving accessibility and minimising barriers to vaccination should be a priority.

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