The Australian government will tighten the rules requiring children to be vaccinated in order for parents to receive welfare payments and childcare subsidies.
Current Australia law states that children must be vaccinated if their parents are to get the Family Tax Benefit A and rebates for childcare costs. However, exemptions are allowed under three circumstances: medical grounds that make a child at increased risk of unusual reaction, religious opposition or other “personal objections.”
The new rules would remove the last option, while still allowing exceptions on religious and medical grounds. The proposal has the support of the Labor opposition, guaranteeing it passage through both houses of parliament.
As in other developed countries, Australia has experienced outbreaks of diseases such as measles and whooping cough that were once controlled or eliminated entirely as a result of increasing numbers of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children.
"The choice made by families not to immunize their children is not supported by public policy or medical research, nor should such action be supported by taxpayers in the form of childcare payments,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Social Services Minister Scott Morrison said in a joint statement.
While the proposal has been welcomed by the Australian Medical Association and parental lobby groups, it has attracted criticism even from some vaccination supporters. It has been noted that users of the conscientious objection clause tend to be wealthy, and therefore less likely to be swayed by the loss of a means-tested welfare benefit.
The current Australian government's record of hostility to science, demonstrated across many fields, has created suspicion about their motivation, particularly since the announcement coincides with moves to restrict welfare for other reasons.
The conscientious objector clause has been used by less than 2% of parents in the last year. Another 6% of children are not vaccinated for other reasons—often from oversight rather than through deliberate parental decision. The proportion of children in the latter category has dropped significantly since 1998.
However, those electing not to vaccinate their children tend to be concentrated in specific areas, allowing infectious disease outbreaks to take hold. Advocates of the new policy hope it will raise vaccination rates in these areas to the point where herd immunity will be sufficient to prevent further outbreaks.