Tough new “no jab no play” laws could hurt children who have not been immunised due to family dysfunction, poverty, or poor access to medical support, experts warn.
From January 1 this year, children who have not received the recommended vaccinations will not be allowed to enrol in childcare centres and kindergartens in Victoria.
Children who are not up to date with their immunisations will also no longer be eligible for subsidised childcare, and the family tax benefit part A end-of-year supplement.
Illustration: Matt Golding
Illustration: Matt Golding
Nearly 2 per cent of parents are registered as conscientious objectors, with another 8 per cent of children not immunised for other reasons, such as being born overseas, being from a disadvantaged background or being in out-of-home care.
Dr Margie Danchin, a paediatrician at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital who specialises in immunisation, said she had concerns that the new laws could penalise disadvantaged families.
“The biggest concern about this policy is that it doesn’t actually target those who are disadvantaged or most vulnerable,” she said.
“I am referring to out-of-home care children, children with child protection orders, refugee families, socially disadvantaged families, Indigenous children, children on concession cards … these children and their families have serious access issues. Their parents may have the best of intentions to vaccinate them, but can’t access medical providers, GPs, immunisation nurses to get a vaccine.”
Dr Jim Buttery, the head of Infection and Immunity at Monash Children’s Hospital, echoed these concerns. While the reforms would likely boost vaccinations, there was a risk that disadvantaged families would miss out, he said.
Minister for Families and Children, Jenny Mikakos, said the new laws were aimed at lifting the immunisation rate from 93 per cent to 95 per cent, and that government was supporting disadvantaged families by offering a 16-week grace period for vulnerable children to bring their immunisations up to date.
“We recognise that there are some children whose families face difficulties accessing immunisations, for example families affected by bushfires or vulnerable children involved with child protection,” she said.
“We have been working closely with early childhood services to give them the support and information needed so families can access vaccinations.”
Despite concerns about a continuing battle to vaccinate disadvantaged children, the new laws have boosted immunisation rates in Victoria.
The rate of vaccinations for two-year-olds rose from 87.9 per cent at the start of 2015, to 90.5 per cent at the end of the year – after “no jab no play” federal and state laws were passed.
Dr Gregory Rowles, a GP at Riddells Country Practice, is one of several practitioners reporting a spike in catch-up vaccinations in recent months.
Yet the new laws have not prompted conscientious objectors to have their children immunised, he said.
Similarly, child care centres in areas with high number of conscientious objectors report contentious objectors have not changed their minds.
Daylesford Childcare Centre co-ordinator, Kylie Mookhoek, said the centre has lost 15 enrolments due to conscientious objectors this year.
The centre, which has gone from having a waiting list, to grappling with vacancies, is now advertising in local newspapers to boost enrolments.
Ms Mookhoek said she feared the drop could have financial consequences for the centre.
“It’s been a pretty turbulent few months … there hasn’t been one family who has decided to vaccinate because of this policy … those families will no longer enrol in childcare.”