Australia has a very proud history in the field of immunology. Even though penicillin, arguably the most important breakthrough in modern medicine, was discovered by Sir Alexander Fleming, a Scottish biologist, it was actually Howard Florey, an Australian pharmacologist, who conducted the first clinical trials of penicillin and really made it useful and effective. Howard Florey is estimated to have saved over 200 million lives since his discovery. Prime Minister Menzies described Florey as ‘the most important man ever born in Australia’. Now the science has conclusively proven that immunisation is an essential part of modern health care. It has significantly contributed to the eradication of smallpox, the first disease that was completely defeated and eliminated.
We understand very well how vaccines prevent diseases. They reduce the risk of infection by working with the body’s natural defences to help it safely develop immunity to the disease. When germs such as bacteria or viruses invade the body, they attack and multiply and become an infection that causes illness. The immune system then has to fight the infection, and the body is left with a supply of cells that help to recognise and fight that disease in the future.
The government understands the importance of immunisation, which is why we introduced the Australian Immunisation Register Act 2015. This legislation created a new consolidated legislative framework for the establishment and ongoing management of Australian immunisation registers. The Australian Immunisation Register and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 is a further part of the government’s very firm, clear and absolute commitment to a No Jab, No Pay program. This program actively encourages immunisation and vaccination to lift the rates of safety for our children and for the children of others with whom each of our offspring play. We know how children play. Any parents or even grandparents here in the chamber know how quickly a cold or virus spreads around when children are young be it at day-care, at a preschool, at a house or when one gets sick.
I believe that there is overwhelming scientific evidence supporting immunisation, not the least of which is to protect our precious children from infectious diseases. Put simply: vaccination saves lives. There was a family of a baby who died of whooping cough in Perth in 2015. His name was Riley John Hughes. He died at Princess Margaret Hospital. The family took to social media at the time not only to share they grief but also in a desire to help eradicate the disease. They were encouraging people to make sure that their children were vaccinated. In the days before Riley’s death, Mrs Hughes made an impassioned plea to other families to consider vaccinating their children against the disease. She said, ‘If you have not been immunised against whooping cough, please consider getting it done. It was heartbreaking to watch four-week old Riley struggle with it at PMH. Please keep him in your thoughts.’ This is the last thing that any parents would want. The Australian Medical Association President, Michael Gannon, in the article also said that the case was a very tragic reminder that people needed to get vaccinated against potentially fatal infections and, of course, this is exactly why vaccinations are so important.
The Centre For Disease Control and Prevention estimates vaccinations will prevent more than 21 million hospitalisations and 732,000 deaths among children born in the last 20 years. More than three million people actually die from vaccine preventable diseases each year. Approximately 1.5 million of those deaths are in children less than five years of age. What better reason could there be for vaccination than that? We have had the 2015 observance of World Immunisation Week. I want to commend the Rotary Clubs around Australia. In their great efforts to deal with the global polio eradication, they have also then taken this further into measles as well.
In 1988 Rotary joined together the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the absolute goal of protecting the world’s children by eradicating polio, and they have worked constantly ever since. Over these 20 years, Rotary and its partners have reduced the number of polio cases by 99 per cent. There are now only three countries in which polio transmission has not been stopped. I commend all of the Rotarians who have committed so much of their efforts and resources to this program. And these polio assets have been applied in tandem now to measles elimination, with similar strategies to deal with this. I encourage Rotary to continue in this. Polio Plus was launched in 1985. I commend Rotary for all their work in this space.
This legislation is about a range of matters. It is about ensuring safety across the board and the importance of vaccinations, including for measles and mumps. It is about rubella and shingles. There is a vaccination for shingles. And it is about the tragic outcomes I mentioned around whooping cough. And deaths from these diseases are absolutely preventable. Immunisation is critical to maintaining public health and preventing the outbreak of infectious diseases. I am pleased that the government’s approach to vaccination for young children has support from both sides of the parliament. The Turnbull government is committed to further improving vaccination rates. Since the introduction of the No Jab, No Pay policy the government has seen an extra 200,000 children vaccinated in just over a year. This has meant vaccination rates have increased to 93 per cent for the general childhood population and to 94.5 per cent for those covered by the particular measures.
It is fundamentally good public policy to ensure good public health outcomes for Australians at the most important level—the individual family. It is good public policy that protects and saves lives. You would understand that, Mr Deputy Speaker Hastie. I understand that your next child is not far away from being born. So you, of all people, would be very protective of your children and babies and understand the critical nature of vaccinations. Even Her Royal Highness Princess Mary of Denmark has lent her support to vaccination. She has seen firsthand the effect of infectious diseases in Africa. This is another way of reinforcing the importance of vaccination right around the world.
In each electorate, many places offer child vaccinations and there are many opportunities for parents to make sure their children are covered. Since the introduction of the AIR Act, immunisation clinicians have requested that other specialised medical professionals have their assessments for medical exemptions recognised under the act in addition to general practitioners. And this is a fair and reasonable and very sensible proposal, put forward by the medical profession, to advance the objectives of the No Jab, No Pay policy. These additional practitioners include paediatricians—a very good idea—public health physicians, infectious disease physicians and clinical immunologists. Specialists have advised that having to send patients back to general practitioners for medical exemptions has added an unnecessary burden of time for patients and in some cases may risk recognition of those families that actually have done the right thing. In rural and regional areas, the more efficient we can be the better. The four specialist groups identified in the legislation today, therefore, provide care to the most vulnerable children in the country, including those with complex illnesses and healthcare requirements.
This is a very sensible response put forward by the profession and is yet another example of the Turnbull government consulting with professionals and making changes to ensure the legislation is fit for purpose—the purpose of good public health outcomes. As the minister did, I too want to thank and acknowledge the work of the AMA and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. It is important that the government work with the profession to make sure that the No Jab, No Play policy is effective.
It’s important to acknowledge the bipartisan support lent by the opposition. I understand they’ve also been a very constructive partner in the push to ensure that vaccination becomes a universal outcome for Australian children, other than those with a genuine medical exemption. The Prime Minister has made this a signature personal area of investigation and action in terms of preventive health, public health and protecting children. He deserves great credit for ensuring the focus on this area. I strongly support this policy and make no apologies for the tough stance this government’s taking on the vaccination of our children. I commend the Australian Immunisation Register and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 to the House, and I am sure that every member of this place is greatly committed to the health of children and babies. That is why there is such widespread and bipartisan support for this important bill. I commend it to the House.