Jeremy Lasek – PHAA
Today marks Day 171 of Australia’s vaccination rollout. It hasn’t been plain sailing, but as a nation we’re certainly headed in the right direction with a record number of vaccinations week on week, largely thanks to an increase of vaccine supply.
More than 13 million doses have been administered, and we’re quickly closing in on half of our population receiving their first dose (44.17%) The latest official figures show 22.6% of the eligible population are now fully vaccinated.
With more than 200,000 Australians now rolling up our sleeves every day, there’s a growing focus on those amongst us described as ‘vaccination hesitant’. These people aren’t necessarily people with strong ‘anti-vaxer’ beliefs; they’re simply yet to be convinced about the benefits of being vaccinated.
A study by the ANU released late last year showed fewer than three in five Australians (58.5%) would definitely get a COVID-19 vaccine once available. This of course preceded the start of the roll out and a high-profile public information campaign.
As Dr Katie Attwell, a mandatory vaccination policy researcher at the University of Western Australia told the 2021 PHAA National Immunisation Conference our nation has a great track record as a nation that supports community-wide vaccination programs. Among our ‘top ten’ public health successes of the past two decades, several forms of vaccination are routinely given to young children and schoolkids, covering human papillomavirus, measles, meningococcal disease, rubella, and rotavirus.
A recent paper Dr Attwell co-authored noted that Australians are generally highly supportive of vaccination, with 87% believing vaccines are safe, effective and necessary, while less than six percent of Australians don’t believe vaccines are safe.
‘However, recent pandemic experience with influenza A/H1N109 saw poor vaccine uptake. One study found 26% of refusers were concerned about safety and 17% did not believe in the vaccine,’ the report said.
‘Studies conducted between April and June 2020 found between 65% and 86% of Australians were likely to accept the COVID-19 vaccine. The World Health Organization listed ‘vaccine hesitancy’ as one of the top threats to global health in 2019, even before the pandemic. Hence, implementing an evidence-based plan for COVID-19 vaccine roll-out is crucial.’
And just last week a very current survey of Australian opinions by the Australia Institute identified that over the past 5 months, immediate COVID-19 vaccination willingness has risen from 42% to 64%, with 25% now open to vaccination but delaying a decision, and with ‘never-vaxxers’ declining from 16% to 11% of respondents.
The urgency of the lockdowns in Sydney and elsewhere, and the consistent public messaging from political and health leaders and many other community voices, will most likely further encourage vaccination and make it well possible to reach targets such as 70% or 80% of the adult population vaccinated.
The next big debate in Australia is likely to be about what movement in the community might be curtailed to a greater extent for those who choose not to get vaccinated than for those who do.
The idea of ‘vaccine passports’ for use to access various public spaces was at about 63% support in the Australia Institute survey, although it’s hard to say how the community would react when the details of such restriction exemptions for the vaccinated emerge, if that happens.
There are already emerging examples of such regimes in Europe; Italy introduced its new green pass at the weekend a nationwide health passport for access to indoor dining, museums, gyms, theatres and a wide range of social activities.
Over the past week, there’s also been increased discussion and debate about a No Jab/No Job policy for workplaces in Australia.
Victorian food processor, SPC is the first Australian business to mandate vaccination for its workforce.
Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce, has also flagged mandatory vaccinations for his flight crew.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, however, isn’t convinced, and has no plans to mandate vaccinations for workers, other than those in aged care or quarantine.
That might create problems for businesses like Google, which has mandated vaccinations for its workforce world-wide.
As Dr Attwell told the National Immunisation Conference, previous policies of No Jab/No Pay or No Jab/No Play have had very mixed results. In a study looking directly at the impact of No Jab/No Pay she said that ‘there was no statistically significant change brought about by the policy change’.
The No Jab/No Pay policy, which began in 2016, is a federal initiative which prevents parents from accessing certain rebates such as the Child Care Rebate if they choose not to vaccinate their child for non-medical reasons. Although this policy existed prior to 2016, payments were still available to parents who identified as conscientious objectors, meaning parents who chose not to vaccinate could still claim the money.
These debates clearly have a long way to run. Hopefully we as a community can make such policy choices on the basis of objective evidence about disease spread and seriousness, as well as equity and fairness to each other.
Photo Credit: FRANK MERIÑO from Pexels