Get the latest news

Australian Immunisation Register Amendment (Reporting) Bill 2020

February 03, 2021

It is always delightful to follow the member for Higgins talking about medical matters. I thought we wrote the opinion piece that we couldn't get published, and indeed that was the case.

It's something that I love talking about—immunisation. I was interested today to hear the Prime Minister, when he was giving his eulogy following the death of Doug Anthony, talk about Doug Anthony having had diphtheria as a child and describe diphtheria as 'the pandemic of the age'. It wasn't. Diphtheria is a bacterial infection, and the organisms that cause it are always with us. Every child now has diphtheria immunisation as part of their triple antigen immunisation. It is remarkable that, in a very short space of time, infectious diseases such as diphtheria, polio, tetanus and whooping cough virtually became a thing of the past because of our continuing immunisation program. It is vitally important that we continue with advances in immunisation to prevent our children and our population becoming victims of infectious disease.

Australia has led the world in this. I and, I am sure, the member for Bowman, the member for Higgins and the member for Lyne, David Gillespie, have lived through this in our medical careers. We have seen dramatic changes in medicine due to immunisation, in relatively recent times.

Of course I support this bill, the Australian Immunisation Register Amendment (Reporting) Bill 2020. I congratulate the government on bringing it forward.

I really want to convey the message of how important immunisation is and how important it is that we continue with modern advances in immunisation, to provide health protection for all our population. In my medical lifetime, we've virtually eradicated bacterial meningitis because of immunisation against infections with bacteria such as Haemophilus influenzae and pneumococcus and meningococcal infections. And this has occurred in my medical lifetime—indeed, in the last 20 to 30 years. I, as a paediatrician, used to virtually always have a child in our medical ward at Campbelltown who was being treated for bacterial meningitis. In the 1990s, with the development of bacterial immunisations, this has virtually disappeared, which has saved numerous lives and prevented major disability.

Sir Norman Gregg, an Australian eye doctor, was the first doctor in the world to describe congenital rubella, which caused major problems in newborn infants if mothers were infected in the first three months of the pregnancy, with blindness, deafness, intellectual disability, congenital heart disease, growth failure et cetera. It has virtually disappeared from the modern developed world, but we know that rubella is always in the community and, unless we keep up our immunisation, it is going to recur. Recently, Professor Ian Frazer has developed immunisation for the virus that causes cervical cancer, and we hope one day to see a world free of cervical cancer and prevent the deaths and the multiple problems that cervical cancer causes. So Australia has actually led the world. I think we can congratulate ourselves on our past history and our current history of dealing with infectious disease.

This bill, of course, makes it mandatory to record immunisations across the board, but, in particular, initially with the COVID-19 vaccine and flu vaccine, and later with our other vaccinations. Our vaccination rates in our children really lead the developed world, and we need that to continue. Our First Nations people's childhood immunisations are now over 96 per cent, which is pretty remarkable and will prevent a lot of illness and death in our Indigenous population.

We are now improving immunisation availability for our older generation, with immunisations for pneumococcal infection, which causes severe, sometimes fatal, pneumonia, particularly in elderly people. We now have immunisations available for herpes zoster, which in young people causes chickenpox and in older adults causes shingles. So we're improving the availability of immunisation all the time, and this new legislation will improve our records of immunisation, which are very important.

I don't know how many children I've seen whose parents couldn't tell me, up until fairly recently, whether their children's immunisations were up to date when I've asked them. The Australian Immunisation Register has been very important as part of improving parents' ability to have their children immunised and as a record of those immunisations. The point's been made quite adamantly that this is a register of mandatory reporting; it is not mandatory immunisation. However, I believe that this will be a way of further improving our immunisation rates and, in particular, getting our more disadvantaged people to have immunisations that will improve immunisation rates in not just young people but also older people.

This legislation does include penalties for a lack of reporting, and as a health professional I think that is very important. The vast majority of health professionals are very diligent about their recording and reporting of immunisations, but we know there have been instances where that has not happened, and I think it's very important that health professionals are updated on ways of improving their immunisation recording. So I fully support the legislation from that point of view.

I have concerns about some of the data collection and the data companies that are being made data partners for this. I have some concerns about a single booking portal because I think that could be quite difficult for older people. I think this is something that will need to be modified over time, but the data is very important. Our health data is really a valuable asset for future health care, and I was very concerned when the government in 2016 sold off some of our health data, particularly the breast cancer registry, to a private company, Telstra Health. I am concerned that Accenture has been made the data partner for the data collection for our COVID-19 response and for the Immunisation Register; I hope that that will not be privatised in the future.

I think it is absolutely remarkable that we've been able to develop COVID-19 vaccines in such a short period of time and, in particular, the new technology involved in immunisation production, the messenger RNA vaccines. We know that the vaccines we will be getting now will not be the best ones for COVID-19. They will be developed in the future. It does appear that the messenger RNA vaccines are good because they are not only very effective but also easily modifiable. As mutations in the COVID-19 virus occur, it is very likely that new immunisations will need to be developed in the future, and the messenger RNA vaccines appear to be the easiest to modify. Whilst we've apparently got a relatively small number of the Pfizer mRNA vaccines being delivered to Australia, I think that we may need to relook at vaccine availability through the Moderna company, which has a messenger RNA vaccine that doesn't have to be kept at such a cold temperature, and that may be very important for a big country like Australia, particularly for rural and remote communities.

I think the government is still being quite unclear about the vaccine rollout. We need to make sure that we are updated as soon as possible about how the vaccine is going to be rolled out and how GPs, hospitals, rural and remote communities, nursing homes, those with disabilities, those living on the street and other remote Australians are going to be offered the vaccine. We also need to know how pharmacies are going to be supported with the vaccines and how we are going to make sure that the most disadvantaged Australians have easy and early access to the vaccination technology.

My personal view is that we also need to look at how we are going to quarantine people, particularly those who are coming from countries that have a high instance of some of the newer mutations, which may be more infectious, and how we're going to manage them in the future. Many things still need to be made clear. But it is absolutely remarkable that Australia has done so well. I congratulate the government on their science based approach to managing the pandemic. We are now in the next phase, the immunisation phase. It does appear very unlikely that we're going to get herd immunity, because, in the initial steps, we're not immunising children or pregnant women. But we do know that these newer vaccines, both the Pfizer vaccine and the AstraZeneca vaccine, will be very effective in preventing severe illness. It's very important that we get both vaccines rolled out as soon as we possibly can.

I will be lining up at the first available opportunity to get this vaccine. It is very important that we all do this in as short a time as possible. I have enormous faith in our health system, as I'm sure the member for Bowman, who is here in the chamber today, does as well. Australia has led the world in a whole range of public health projects, from immunisation to child development, to managing a whole range of different health problems, from infectious diseases to the diseases of modern life, the so-called lifestyle diseases. We have led the world, and we'll continue to do so.

The importance of a rapid vaccine rollout means that, within Australia, our borders can be opened more effectively and kept open. We know that the more people coming in from overseas with the virus, the more difficult it is to keep our quarantine systems working well, and that is something that requires a great deal of thought. This year will still be a difficult year in terms of international travel, but vaccination will help to a degree, particularly with those countries that have very low instance of the virus. So it is very important.

I would stress that the vaccination for COVID-19 will not be mandatory. The only thing that will be mandatory will be the reporting and recording of it so that people know who has been vaccinated and who hasn't. This may have some importance in healthcare settings, hospitals and rapid diagnosis of the illness. But it is very important that this is a voluntary vaccine and remains so, and there's bipartisan support for that.

I congratulate the government on many of the things they have done to bring this forward and in managing the COVID-19 epidemic. But there's still much we don't know—and 2021 is not going to be a normal year. We know that there will be things we will learn about the virus; we're all learning as we go. It's very important that people understand that it will not be situation normal for a long period of time. With widespread community vaccination, I'm hopeful that we'll get back to at least a more open society. But, for the time being, pandemic measures are here to stay. It's very important that our community is given as much information as possible about the planning and about what the future is going to be. I commend this bill to the House.