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The truth about Australia’s attitude toward vaccines

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The coronavirus pandemic has given fringe anti-vaccination groups more oxygen and media attention than they’ve ever had.

From the outset, it looked like their anti-vaxxer message, aided by the internet and misinformed celebrities, was spreading far and wide.

However, the reality in Australia could not be more different.

“One of the most astounding pieces of misinformation we’ve had over the last few years, is that vaccination rates are declining,” said Professor Julie Leask, a social scientist at The University of Sydney and expert on public attitude toward vaccines.

“Australia is an extremely pro-vaccine country globally.

“We have very high coverage for children and we have reasonably strong intentions to have the COVID-19 vaccine, but we can’t take that for granted.”

More than 94 per cent of Australian children were classified as ‘fully vaccinated’ in 2019, according to the latest annual immunisation coverage report by the National Centre for Immunisation, Research and Surveillance (NCIRS).

And despite the fear and misinformation circulating around the coronavirus pandemic, that figure hasn’t really changed.

According to a report published by the NCIRS in November, researchers found “no evidence of any substantial impact on vaccination uptake in children at national or state/territory level, for vaccinations due up to July 2020”.

“This is a welcome finding, which likely reflects consistent messaging from health authorities that it is important to maintain immunisation through the pandemic and efforts to provide COVID-19 safe vaccination services,” the authors wrote.

We are not the United States

On Thursday, a new poll revealed only about half of Americans were prepared to get a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available.

The survey, from The Associated Press-NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research, showed about a quarter of US adults weren’t sure if they wanted to get vaccinated.

Roughly another quarter said they definitely won’t.

Anti-vaccine activists protest outside the Massachusetts State House in August. Photo: Getty

Many on the fence have safety concerns and want to see how the initial rollout goes.

This skepticism – though understandable – could hinder the nation’s fight against COVID-19, which has already killed nearly 290,000 Americans.

“To get what you might call ‘herd immunity’, it’s generally stated you need something like 60 or 70 per cent of a population vaccinated,” said Emeritus Professor Gustav Nossal AC, a public health expert at The University of Melbourne.

If only half of Americans get vaccinated, it won’t be enough to stop the virus from spreading there.

But we are not the US.

In an Ipsos survey conducted in October of more than 18,000 adults from 15 countries, Australia ranked fifth in its intention to get a coronavirus vaccine, compared to the US, which ranked second last behind France.

Ahead of Australia, the four most pro-vaccine countries were India, China, South Korea and Brazil.

Australians’ general acceptance of vaccines may be related to a mass vaccination push by the federal government in the late 1990s, Professor Leask said.

“In 1997, when we established our childhood vaccination register, we recorded 75 per cent of 12-month-olds being fully vaccinated, and just 63 per cent of two-year-olds being vaccinated,” she told TND.

“By around the year 2000, childhood vaccination rates had climbed up to 90 per cent.

“We’ve done great things with our vaccination programs since the late ’90s. A lot of us are having them and thinking it’s normal and convenient, and then we think positively about that.”

In other words, don’t believe the hype around anti-vaxxer “influencers” on social media.

“The air time anti-vaccination activists and influencers get is completely out of proportion to the actual influence they have,” Professor Leask said, adding mainstream media hasn’t helped.

“Even stories that report about them in an outraged way give them the kind of oxygen that they crave.

“What’s happened to Pete Evans, is that he had so much attention being the so-called ‘bad boy of health’ that he’s now got more publicity and a following than he otherwise may have gotten.”

Thankfully, Australian parents generally prefer to trust science than an unqualified celebrity on YouTube.

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