Overcoming disease complacency to improve immunisation rates

| February 19, 2016

The latest report on child immunisation in Australia has found that in a number of regions rates remain too low to prevent the spread of diseases. Professor of Nursing Linda Shields is calling for greater awareness raising among young parents about the diseases that immunisation prevent.

Childhood immunisation is one the best public health initiatives Australia has ever seen, and all parents should immunise their children.

The latest report from the National Performance Authority looks at four years of childhood immunisation data for 2013 to 2015.

In 2014, the Australian Chief Medical Health Officer and all state and territory chief health officers agreed to a national aspirational target for 95 per cent of all children to be fully immunised, to ensure communities are protected against dangerous illnesses such as measles and whooping cough.

The report shows that while there have been improvements in immunisation rates, that target has not been met, and  there’s significant variation in immunisation rates for one-year-olds.

The rates vary from 98 per cent of one-year-olds fully immunised in one postcode, Kingston Beach in Tasmania, to as low as 73 per cent in Brunswick Heads on the North Coast of NSW.

More than 1,200 postcodes were found to have rates below 95 per cent, and more than 100 had rates below 85 per cent.

To improve these immunisation rates government and health authorities need to stress the severity and danger of preventable childhood diseases to parents.

Over the past 20 years we have seen immunisation rates rise dramatically and the incidences of childhood diseases like measles, epiglottitis and pneumococcal disease decrease significantly, and this has been fantastic.

The paradox however is that by virtually eradicating some of the most horrible, life-threatening illnesses there is now a whole generation or more of parents who have no first- or even second- hand experience of these illnesses. And subsequently those parents find it difficult to understand the consequences of not immunising their children.

You really do have to be of a certain age to remember that it’s not long ago that far too many children were dying and suffering terribly from diseases such as tetanus, diphtheria, measles, chicken pox, pertussis (whooping cough) and the complications related to them.

Given this lack of first-hand experience and community awareness it’s difficult to blame some young parents who are unwilling to have their children immunised.

Education is the answer, and the Government and health authorities need to do more to help young parents really understand the potentially devastating consequences of these preventable diseases and promote the great work done through immunisation to minimise them.

It would be good to see popular culture such as TV shows explore the issue and give this current generation of parents a taste of what it is like to have a child who can’t breathe because of diphtheria or who suffers severe brain damage as a result of a case of measles that could have been prevented through vaccination.