No Jab, No Play – Our exclusive interview with the Victorian Health Minister

friendly male doctor smiling with toddler

You may be aware that the Australian Government has recently called for a national approach to childhood immunisation – a No Jab, No Play initiative which would be rolled out in preschools and childcare centres across the country.

Since just such a policy has already been implemented in Victoria, we spoke exclusively to the Hon. Jill Hennessy MP, Victorian Minister for Health, to get the lowdown on what parents can expect. 

The Prime Minister recently called on all states and territories to work together on a national No Jab, No Play policy in childcare centres and preschools. Why are immunisations so important in Australia?

The scientific evidence supporting immunisation is crystal clear – vaccinations save lives.

Vaccinating your child not only protects the health of your child, it also protects you and the community as whole from serious and life-threatening diseases.

High rates of immunisation also provide life-saving protection for those who cannot receive vaccines – for example, babies who are too young to be immunised, or people who cannot receive vaccines for medical reasons such as being treated for cancer.

Here in Victoria we are proud to be leading the way when it comes to improving vaccination rates in our community, through our tough No Jab, No Play initiative, and also through things like reinstating the free whooping cough vaccine for new and expectant parents, developing new apps to remind parents when their child’s vaccinations are due and investing in a public awareness campaign.

Roughly 93 per cent of children are said to be vaccinated. You’re trying to reach a target of 95 per cent. Do we need to reach this target to achieve herd immunity?

Yes. Herd immunity is achieved when enough people are immunised against a disease to protect those who can’t be immunised.

Although Victoria’s childhood immunisation coverage is high and is continuing to improve, we can still do better.

Our No Jab, No Play initiative is designed to boost immunisation rates across the community and to protect everyone.

Herd immunity achieved in childhood also provides significant benefits to the adult population by reducing the circulation of vaccine-preventable disease.

When it comes to the anti-vaccination argument, some parents feel they should be able to make these kinds of health decisions themselves. What do you say to that argument?

What is critical is that parents get their information about vaccination from a safe, reliable, medical source such as their GP or local government immunisation provider – not from people spreading myths and lies about vaccination on the internet.

Parents should be wary of opinions and unsupported claims that they may come across as they investigate immunisation and instead rely on the information provided by reputable sources and evidence-based research.

Parents also have a responsibility to their own kids, and their health and well-being. It’s also not just about the impact their decisions may have on the health of their child, they also need to think about the impact on other children who may be medically unable to be vaccinated.

Victoria’s Better Health Channel is a great source of reputable information.

I’m confident that parents making a well-informed decision will support immunisation as important for the health of their children, family and the whole community.

Are we seeing a return of life-threatening illnesses like measles and whooping cough?

In 2014, the World Health Organisation (WHO) confirmed that Australia had achieved measles elimination status, meaning there were no ‘local’ strains of measles circulating in the community.

The achievement of measles elimination does not mean the complete absence of the disease in Australia, as cases will still be imported by travellers from countries where the disease continues to be common. Due to its highly infectious nature, an imported case of measles may also lead to cases among individuals who are not immune to the disease and may sometimes result in small and usually localised outbreaks.

There have been a number of outbreaks of measles in Victoria in the last few years, the majority of which were linked to overseas travel. There were 38 cases of measles reported to the Victorian Government Department of Health and Human Services in 2016, compared with 36 cases in 2015 and 75 in 2014. Almost all of the cases over this time were either unvaccinated, under-vaccinated (with only one dose of measles-containing vaccine instead of the recommended two doses) or were too young to be vaccinated (aged less than one year).

Whilst case numbers in Victoria as at 31 December 2016 for pertussis (whooping cough) were the lowest in eight years, epidemics naturally occur in three to five year cycles. Consistently high immunisation coverage is the only way to contain that natural cycle of disease.

Whilst the majority of pertussis infections occur in adults (approximately 70 per cent of case numbers annually), the disease is most severe in infants aged less than six months prior to receiving their first three doses of pertussis-containing vaccines.

The number cases of whooping cough have nearly halved in the past year, with 2,888 cases of pertussis notified to the department in 2016, compared with 4,731 in 2015 and 4,607 in 2014.

Our Government brought back the free whooping cough vaccine for new and expectant parents after it was cut by the former Liberal Government, and this is making a huge difference when it comes to this deadly disease. 

How is the government helping those parents who have difficulty accessing immunisation services?

I am proud that here in Victoria excellent work is being done by immunisation service providers to support families to access timely and appropriate immunisations.

Victoria has some of the most flexible arrangements in Australia for the administration of immunisations. Seventy nine local governments offer immunisation services, at a range of times and in a range of locations.

These include sessions ‘after hours’ and on Saturdays. Forty per cent of infants and children are immunised at a local government immunisation service in Victoria.

A number of local governments also have home visits for vulnerable or disadvantaged families or those who can’t attend sessions for medical reasons.

So far the No Jab, No Play policy has been taken up by Queensland, NSW and Victoria. Have you seen any direct outcomes from the policy?

While the impact of the policy is currently being evaluated, we do know that immunisation rates have increased overall since the introduction of No Jab, No Play.  

Immunisation rates are only one aspect of evaluating the success of a policy and our review will help us to better understand the benefits of the policy for vulnerable and disadvantaged families.

What about those children who have a ‘medical exemption’ for immunisation. What is this, and how is it treated under the No Jab, No Play policy?

An important part of No Jab, No Play is the ability for children with certain professionally diagnosed medical conditions to be exempt from immunisation requirements.

The child’s doctor has the ability to make an assessment and will determine if a medical contraindication to immunisation exists.

The Victorian vaccine safety service provides specialist immunisation services to support doctors with patients who have a medical and/or vaccine safety concern, and can be contacted on 1300 882 924.

How can parents find out more about immunisation from reputable sources?

It’s natural for parents to have questions about the health of their children and family.

To find out answers to their questions about immunisation, I encourage parents to look for information from reputable and credible sources, rather than rely on someone’s opinion or unsupported claims. 

As a first step I suggest parents discuss immunisation with their GP or their local government immunisation provider.

Up-to-date and reliable information can also be found at the Better Health Channel.

Do you have any personal thoughts to share with those parents out there who might be feeling hesitant about immunisation?

As a parent, I know that all parents want to do the best they can to keep their children healthy and protect them from disease.

If you are hesitant about immunisation, or any health matter, the most important thing you can do is to get answers to your questions from a qualified, reputable and evidence-based source.

Making a decision about your children’s health based on the opinions and unsupported claims of unqualified sources can cause you to make uninformed decisions which can be detrimental to your children’s health.

Immunising your child is the best way to protect you and your family, as well as other children in the community, from serious and life-threatening illnesses.

(This is a sponsored post for the Victorian State Government)

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