November 30, 2017  |  Second reading

Health and Child Wellbeing Legislation Amendment Bill 2017

MR HOWARD (Buninyong) (15:59:06) — I am pleased to add my comments on the Health and Child Wellbeing Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 that is before the house. As the name of the bill indicates, this government continues to be committed to addressing a broad range of issues associated with health and wellbeing. In relation to children, we know that we need to be even stronger in our advocacy and ensure that our laws are the best they can be to protect children and to support the ongoing good health of our children.

Looking at the central issue of this bill, which is around the vaccination of children, it is amazing to think how far we have come in the last 100 years. It is not that long ago that we had very high child mortality rates. It must have been so distressing for families 100 or 200 years ago to know that many of their children would not live to adulthood. Of course many families had a large number of children to protect against the loss of some of their children so they could at least get some of them through to adulthood. It must have been hugely distressing to lose any children.

All of us in this house who have children quake when we consider the potential mortality of our children, so we are pleased to live at a time when a great deal of progress has been made in many areas of medicine but particularly in the area of vaccination. We can vaccinate our children for all of the major health threats that are out there, including tuberculosis and polio. They are diseases that were of great concern when I was a child, but fortunately we do not hear much of them these days. When I was in early primary school there was a child in my class who had suffered from polio and wore a caliper to school. Fortunately he was not too badly affected, but what an awful disease polio was. But other awful diseases, whether it be tuberculosis, whether it be typhoid or whether it be cholera — which we know still affects people in a serious way in Third World countries — are all preventable diseases today, and the capacity of our system of vaccination has meant that in countries like ours these diseases are no longer a threat.

Thirty years ago when medical professionals provided advice to the community, the community was almost in awe of that advice. We understood that we needed to take the advice of the scientists of the medical profession. We were impressed that science was making great headway and we responded to that science. Perhaps partly because of the internet and social media there now seems to be a group of people who call themselves scientists whose sole role is to challenge the views of the majority of scientists and, as a result, put doubt into the minds of community members, who then start to question mainstream science and, in this case, the validity of vaccination. We know that there is also questioning of global warming. Fortunately the people on this side of the house understand and appreciate the science of global warming and know we need to do more about it, but it is sad that people are questioning a whole range of these areas of science, which means that we do not make the headway that we would if we listened to the advice of mainstream scientists.

In regard to vaccination, we know that there are parents who listen to these oddball scientists, these people who clearly are acting without looking at mainstream science. These people give advice to parents that by vaccinating their children they might be putting them in harm’s way rather than out of harm’s way. It is incumbent upon governments to try and fight these oddball scientists by countering the media that is critical of medical science.

This government recently introduced no jab, no play legislation, which took effect at the start of last year. That legislation makes clear that this government recognises that vaccination is important and that not only is the government going to promote vaccination but it is going to try and enforce vaccination for most children in the childcare system and the school system.

Of course we do recognise that there are cases where vaccination might not be appropriate for some children in certain circumstances, but we do not want to see that becoming a loophole. What we have seen since the legislation was proclaimed last year is that there are some doctors who, for one reason or another, want to support parents who are not happy about vaccination and who have these false concerns. These doctors are happy to write letters that schools have then accepted as a waiver on a child’s need for vaccination. This is clearly not in the interests of the children. It is good that doctors who are willy-nilly signing to say that children do not need vaccinations are being reviewed.

As part of this process I have learned a new word, ‘contraindication’. These doctors can write these letters of medical contraindication, which means that children do not need immunisation. This legislation will ensure that letters from individual doctors are no longer acceptable to childcare agencies, kindergartens and schools and are not sufficient to confirm that those children do not need vaccinations. We will have a system involving national immunisation statements where people will need appropriate doctors to state the reasons why a child should not be vaccinated, and only in those cases will the vaccination requirement be waived. It will be a much more restrictive system and will recognise appropriate paperwork on a national basis, as has been outlined by other members of this house.

It is disappointing that there are not more members on the other side of the house taking an interest in this debate. It appears that they are ready to go home today. But on this side of the house we continue to recognise that this is a very important issue that we need to follow up on. In this bill before the house the government is taking sound action, as any good government does. It looks at legislation that is in place to see that it continues to work as it is intended to, but where there are unseen cases where the law is not functioning as it should be, it adjusts that legislation. That is what this bill is doing, following up on the issues that we have identified over the past year.

The other major issue that is contained in the bill relates to anaphylaxis. Again, this is another amazing area. We see that there are so many more children these days who are reporting to hospitals or to others in the medical profession with severe allergies to food, insects or other things, and they are having severe reactions that we know are resulting in death. We know that we have had a substantial system of training those in our healthcare system, child-care system, kindergartens and schools to be able to use EpiPens where they are appropriate for students who have a potential for these anaphylactic reactions, and that is a good thing. But this bill recognises that there has been an issue sometimes of slower reporting of anaphylactic reactions identified in hospitals, particularly where they relate to food allergies. We have heard of the case of the 10-year-old boy who died in 2016 after consuming coconut milk. It is a matter of ensuring that in those cases hospitals or anybody who identifies these concerns report them as quickly as they can so that they can be followed up and the food can be removed.