Sensible to vaccinate

Opposition health spokesman David Clark believes that governments should explore ways to further increase vaccination rates in the general population to prevent avoidable death.

Yesterday, an article appeared in the Otago Daily Times which said that I supported New Zealand following Australia and banning unvaccinated children from child care centres and preschools. This is not correct.

My position is that it is sensible and responsible to investigate, when in Government, measures to increase vaccination rates in the general population. There are good reasons for this. Globally, measles is one of the leading causes of death among young children, according to the World Health Organisation. Even in Otago, where 94% of children are vaccinated at the age of 8 months, anything that improves vaccination rates is good for the general population. Prevention is better than cure.

There will always be some children who cannot be vaccinated, for medical reasons. But the more children who are vaccinated, the safer it is for all of our children.

Sick or vulnerable children unable to be vaccinated are more likely to be saved from the prospect of death or disability when the overwhelming majority of the general population is vaccinated. For example: children with cancer or with low immunity, face a more than 50% likelihood of death if they contract measles. A herd immunity across the population can protect these children.

An investigation when in Government into measures to increase vaccination rates should be a priority. It should look not into those who are unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons, but into those who choose not to get vaccinated because they hold a worldview that opposes vaccination on cultural, religious or other grounds.

In some cases, people choose not to vaccinate children because of fears that could be dispelled with clear and readily available information about the real risks involved in failing to vaccinate.

Before considering any punitive measures which could have unintended consequences, we need to look at ways to encourage and promote vaccination. It would be extremely unfortunate if children were barred from attending early childhood centres just because their parents held a view that those children were unable to influence.

This is a double-whammy for those children and families, because early childhood centres are a source of education for families, and an important referral point for health care.

New Zealand has had much success in working with vulnerable communities to explain the benefits of vaccination. So far, education and cajoling has delivered impressive results, when compared with many other countries. Currently, 93% of 8-month-olds across New Zealand have had their primary course of vaccinations on time.

But we should never become complacent. Recently, there have been measles outbreaks, in Waikato, Palmerston North and Auckland. Last year, seven schools had to close in the North Island because of a measles outbreak.

We should consider what our world would look like if, in the 1950s and 1960s, parents decided that children should not receive the Salk vaccine for polio.

Australia is looking to radical changes. Labour's leader, Andrew Little, has taken the more moderate and responsible step of calling for an investigation into all of the options for improving vaccination rates. He is right.

In the end, no parent or political representative wants to see a child die from a preventable disease.

-Dr David Clark is the Opposition health spokesman and the Labour member of Parliament for Dunedin North.

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