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NSW Parliament: No conscientious objection to vaccination

The NSW Parliament has passed legislation removing exemptions for conscientious objection in vaccination rules and tightening vaccination requirements for childcare centres and schools.

The Public Health Amendment (Review) Bill 2017 passed both houses on September 13 and has now received Royal Assent. The Bill, amendments, explanatory notes and Hansard transcripts of second reading speeches are available at the Parliament House website.

Parents who refuse to vaccinate their children will no longer be allowed to enrol them in child care with the “conscientious objector” option scrapped from January 2018.

NSW Minister for Health Brad Hazzard said the new rules will reduce the risk of children contracting potentially deadly diseases such as whooping cough and meningococcal.

“However, all it takes is one unvaccinated child and dozens of others could be put at risk of serious illness – so we are being very clear that choices of conscientious objectors, which are not evidence based, will no longer be allowed to impact other families.”

Directors of child care centres who do not comply with the strengthened requirements under the Public Health Act will face a fine of up to $5500.

The new requirements will only apply to newly enrolled children from January 1. Children on a recognised catch-up vaccination schedule or those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons will still be able to be enrolled.

The legislation also gives public health officers the power to exclude unvaccinated children from secondary schools when there is a disease outbreak. This provision previously only applied to primary schools and child care centres.

Removing this exemption will align with the Australian Government’s ‘No Jab, No Pay’ measure, under which certain child care and family tax benefits are dependent on a child being vaccinated.

The Amendment Bill covers a range of health issues, including clean water, but vaccination in schools is the central thrust.

Section 86 and 87 of the Amendments covers responsibilities of principals of schools (now covering schools generally and not just primary schools) and principals of child care facilities with respect to immunisation.

In these instances, a vaccination certificate or medical contraindication certificate is required for all children. One amendment says that “A person must not forge or falsify a certificate that is required to be provided under this section.” Penalties will apply.

Anti-vax rally

On the day before the Parliamentary debate, there was a rally of anti-vaxxers in Martin Place, Sydney, opposite the NSW Parliament House. Speakers included Judy Wilyman, whose conspiracy-oriented PhD issued by the University of Wollongong raised the ire of academics, skeptics and the public last year. Wilyman was joint winner of the Skeptics’ Bent Spoon award for 2016.

The turnout could only be described as ‘minimal’ – counts made by Skeptics who attended the rally were that there were approximately 50 protestors, many of whom seemed to be talking among themselves rather than listening to the four hours of speeches.

Following the rally, some protestors moved into the public gallery of the NSW Parliament to watch the debate. At the end of Question Time, when no vaccination issues were raised, they then left, disappointed. In fact, the health amendment bill was not debated until the following day.

During the eventual debate in Parliament, Hazzard said: “We cannot allow the community to become complacent and we must fight back against the untruths told about vaccination. … Disturbingly, there are small pockets in the community who not only do not support vaccination but also peddle lies and misinformation about the safety and effectiveness of vaccination. … We must fight back against the untruths told about vaccination.”

Some of the other comments made in the debates in the Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council included:

“It is the view of the Labor Opposition that anti-vaccination rhetoric is not only unfounded and unscientific, but is dangerous to the community and that this danger outweighs the potential disadvantage.” [Kate Washington]

“Young lives are at risk from crackpot conspiracies peddled by those who should know better. Conspiracies include claims that vaccinations are agents of government mind control, or are a pro-capitalist plot cooked up by big pharma.” [Jo Haylen]

“I saw in Martin Place yesterday the protests from some of these conscientious objectors and anti-vaxxers who say that the Parliament does not have the right to remove their freedom of choice, compel them to participate in a public health program they disagree with, or discriminate against their child’s right to early education. This bill does not do any of that. What it does do is protect the health and wellbeing of our entire community, in particular children, who should not be exposed to unnecessary and preventable health risks.” [Greg Piper]

“I take exception to a certain section of our community who believe that vaccination is a problem in itself. I do not believe that the anti-vaxxers, as they call themselves, have the interests of their children at heart with regard to vaccinations. Nor do I believe that they have at heart the interests of the wider public. If the anti-vaxxers had their way, we would have a lot more than 80-odd cases of polio in the world today. There would be literally hundreds of thousands of people suffering, completely and utterly unnecessarily, from polio.” [Michael Johnsen]

“Regrettably, a particular strain of thought about vaccination has arisen in some Australian communities. These people deny the efficacy of vaccination, ignore or distort the evidence, and create wild conspiracy theories to justify why, when vaccines are supported so firmly by the medical establishment and governments of all types, only they are burdened with the truth about vaccination. … In the literature, these people are referred to as ‘conscientious objectors’. This phrase, like its colleague ‘climate sceptic’, is far too generous to the antediluvians that it describes. They are anti-vaccination; they are anti vaxxers. Conscientious objectors refused to go to Vietnam to kill those with whom they had no quarrel. … Anti-vaxxers refuse to undertake a safe and sensible procedure that saves lives, prevents disease and contributes to a higher quality of life for themselves, their children, and those around them. There is nothing conscientious about their refusal.” [Ron Hoenig]

“There is a trove of information on the internet – some accurate, some misleading and some just plain wrong. Unfortunately, not everyone in the community has the skills to scientifically scrutinise the accuracy or validity of what is on the internet. In some cases this has led to a culture of suspicion and opposition against all forms of vaccine.” [Paul Green]

Walt Secord, Member of the Legislative Council (upper house) was particularly outspoken.

“The use of the phrase ‘conscientious objector’ is a misrepresentation. I note the tiny ragtag rally held yesterday in Martin Place. I also note the handful of emails I received from the anti-vaccination movement when I first proposed these measures. Anyone who gives comfort to those nutters deserves to be condemned.

“Personal choices that needlessly deny medical treatment to children have a name: child neglect.

“Public health policy is a matter of evidence. There is no other way to do it. The evidence is in and the jury has reached its conclusion. It is clear. It is settled. Despite endless revisiting, re-publication and promotion of that evidence, a fringe just refuses to accept it. It is time to treat vaccination not as a choice of parents but as the right of children.

“These measures would directly target individuals like Melbourne’s Dr John Piesse, who has helped parents avoid compulsory vaccinations. He should be railroaded out of the medical fraternity – he should be disbarred. Currently, he and two other doctors are the subject of investigations in Victoria. He also holds controversial views on autism and heart disease. I am disappointed that a campaign by the anti-vaxxer movement has raised $117,251 in Dr Piesse’s defence fund. I would not give a cent to this charlatan or to his defence.

“As for anti-vaccination groups arguing that some children will miss out on child care and early childhood education because their parents refuse to get them vaccinated, that is absolute rubbish. The number is so minute that it would amount to a small handful of children in the entire State. Labor’s position on vaccination is very clear: there is no such thing as a so-called conscientious objector; a parent who refuses to have his or her child vaccinated is an anti-vaxxer.”

Tim Mendham: