With ‘conscientious objector’ figures rising across the country, Mamamia investigates the most prominent anti-vaxxer pockets in Australia.
Increasing numbers of parents are registering as ‘conscientious objectors’ to childhood vaccinations, according to government figures.
Health Department statistics reveal that last year, 39,523 children were recorded as conscientious objectors to vaccinations last year, out of more than 2.2 million total children on the department’s register.
While the most objections from any one state came from NSW last year, objectors were clustered in areas as diverse as inner-city Melbourne and the Adelaide Hills in South Australia –with immunisation rates in some pockets of the country remaining “lower than South Sudan”, according to Melbourne virologist Dr Dave Hawkes.
Shadow Health Minister Catherine King told Mamamia the low level of immunisation in these hot spots is “a cause for great concern”.
“In some of these communities fewer than half the population is fully vaccinated, which leaves their populations badly exposed to outbreaks of potentially deadly diseases,” she said.
“Worse, this loss of ‘herd immunity’ also exposes people too young, or too ill to be vaccinated, such as babies, and we’ve already seen tragic example of this in recent years.”
University of Sydney Associate Professor Julie Leask told Mamamia that while the vast majority of Australian parents did vaccinate their kids, certain pockets of parents believe “that the risks of vaccines outweigh the benefits — despite what the science says”.
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“What we do know about the communities is that they tend to have beliefs, attitudes and concerns that lead them to not want to vaccinate or to delay or select out common vaccines,” she said. “The parents often have alternative lifestyles or use alternative healthcare and mistrust governments and the pharmaceutical industry.”
Ms Leask also pointed out that high rates of objection are not the same as areas with low vaccination rates — as there are other areas where children are unvaccinated because parents have’t gotten around to it, or because they have restricted access to medical resources.
With the Federal government’s proposed “no jab, no pay” policy dominating headlines all week, Mamamia set out to investigate the biggest anti-vaxxer “hotspots” across Australia — and whether the new laws are likely to have any effect on them.
Here’s what we dug up:
The highest number of conscientious objections to vaccination last year came from parents in NSW, who accounted for 9625 of the total objectors at the end of 2013.
A report from the National Health Performance Authority last year showed some of Australia’s lowest vaccination rates were in wealthy Sydney suburbs including Mosman, Manly, the inner city and the eastern suburbs — although the Richmond Valley area of North-Eastern NSW has one of the highest rates of vaccination objection in the country.
Areas of northern NSW like Lennox Head, Mullumbimby, Byron Bay and Nimbin have particularly high rates of unvaccinated children– hovering about 60-70% as of 2013, the Northern Star reports.
In Mullumimby in particular, only 46 to 49% of one, two and five-year-old kids are fully immunised, according to the most recent National Health Performance Authority, and around one-third of Australia register their objection to vaccinations, according to Associate Professor Leask. Those figures make Mullumbimby the town with the highest objection rate in Australia.
Three Steiner schools in northern NSW, including one in Mullumbimby, are also promoting parents’ choice to reject vaccinations in NSW, a report in the Daily Telegraph claimed this week.
But Mullumbimby Steiner School told Mamamia that while it “does not have a policy on vaccination as it believes such health issues are for parents to decide in conjunction with medical professionals”, but that each Steiner school adheres to health department guidelines.
“It is incorrect to suggest that high levels of non-vaccinated children in Northern NSW are specific to Steiner schools. The demographics of Northern NSW have led to high levels of unvaccinated children across all schools in that area,” an emailed statement said.
Other objector pockets in NSW included the state’s south coast, the Blue Mountains and Kempsey-Nambucca, the National Health Performance Authority reported in 2013.
Bad news for Queenslanders: The Sunshine Coast, the Gold Coast and far-north Queensland are among the statistical regions with the highest rates of objection in the country.
Across Queensland, only 92 per cent of five-year-olds are currently fully vaccinated– and in 2012-2013, the state housed four out of five of the country’s Medicare catchments with the greatest number of conscientious objectors.
Those areas included Greater Metro South Brisbane, Metro North Brisbane, the Gold Coast, and the Sunshine Coast — with the Sunshine Coast hinterland having one of the worst rates of child immunisation in the country in 2013.
The Australian Childhood Immunisation Register’s coverage report reveals that more than 10 per cent of kids were unvaccinated in 2012 in Noosa on the Sunshine Coast.
However, Adelaide, Holdfast Bay, Norwood, Payneham and St Peters, Playford and Port Adelaide all had immunisation rates under 85 per cent for children aged five in 2011-12, the 2013 National Health Performance Authority report revealed.
The Adelaide Hills is one of the statistical regions with the highest rates of objection to vaccination; in the areas, only 86 per cent of children were fully immunised at five years in 2013, according to ABC News.
As of 2013, Western Australia had slightly lower immunisation rates than other jurisdictions — with childhood vaccination rates hovering around the 90% mark in 2014, the West Australian president of the Australian Medical Association Michael Gannon told the ABC.
In south-west Western Australia, however, rates of objection reach over 10% in many areas in 2012, the health department reports.
Th Fremantle, an alternative lifestyle community, has slightly lower immunisation rates than other areas — about 5% lower than the wider community last year. In the portside community and surrounding suburbs in 2013, 93 per cent of one-year-olds were immunised but the rate fell to about 82 per cent for five-year-olds, ABC News reports.
Victoria has one of the highest immunisation rates in the country — but it’s not without its problem areas.
The affluent suburbs of St Kilda, Fitzroy North, Camberwell, Toorak and Brighton sit below the average immunisation rates for the state, while just 81.29 per cent of five-year-olds in the City of Melbourne are immunised, health department data shows.
In South Eastern Melbourne, 1791 children are not immunised, with almost 12% being contentious objectors. In South Western Melbourne the figure is similar, with 10% of the 1159 children not fully immunised being objectors. But in Eastern Melbourne the statistic is the highest, with 1264 children unprotected by immunisation; 28% of which are conscientious objectors, according to the National Health Performance Authority reportfor 2012-2013.
Daylesford, Hepburn Springs and Ballan are part of the Grampians Medicare catchment that stretches from Ballarat to the South Australian Border. In the Grampians catchment 500 children are not fully immunised, with 145 children listed as conscientious objectors, according to the latest National Health Performance Authority report.
As of mid-2010, Hepburn, near Daylesford, ranked among the areas with the biggest percentage of unimmunised kids and babies, as does and Mansfield, in the Alpine region. In both those areas, only 80-85 per cent were vaccinated in some age groups aged between 12 months and six years.
What about the “no jab, no pay” policy?
Earlier this week, Tony Abbott and Social Services Minister Scott Morrison announced that parents who do not vaccinate their children may lose up to $15,000 in government benefits.
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But Ms King told Mamamia that while Labor welcomed the tightening of exemptions for receiving benefits “these immunisation ‘hot spots’ (that) this alone is unlikely to be enough to overcome the fear and misinformation that is undermining immunisation efforts”.
She pointed to Labor’s introduction of incentives and programs to educate parents and counter misinformation. — including programs delivered by Medicare Locals to improve access to information for parents through local GPs and child care and community health centres.
Julie Leask had her own reservations about the “no jay, no pay” policy.
“The policy to remove family payments from non-vaccinators sounds like a great policy, but if you look into the detail it could do more harm,” she said.
“It’s unlikely to make a meaningful difference to vaccination rates and could create unintended harm by eroding the trust in the healthcare system that’s so fundamental to most people volunteering for vaccination,” she said. “It seems like more a punitive policy.”
Do you live in an anti-vaxxer pocket?
“Save the Date to Vaccinate is an initiative from NSW Health to remind parents of the importance of on-timevaccinations for children. Visit www.immunisation.health.nsw.
gov.au to download the free ‘Save the Date’ phone app.”