Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Political Immunity

By Simon Grose

Vaccination sceptics are active in all vaccinated societies, but which side of politics they inhabit is a matter of national difference.

Disneyland created a focus for the brace of Republican hopefuls as the preliminary rounds of the next US Presidential election got going late last year. A woman infected with measles had stayed at the spiritual home of Mickey and Donald, spreading the virus on rides in planes and cars that caused a rash of new cases in several states.

Vaccination against measles began in the US in 1963. Before then, the country recorded up to 500,000 cases of measles each year. In the first decade of this century fewer than 200 cases were recorded annually, but numbers have been climbing since 2012 and last year spiked to over 600.

What’s this got to do with Republican presidential candidates? The emerging anti-vaccination sentiment in the US that’s nudging infection rates upwards is mainly a right wing thing. So as they seek the support of their party, in which the Tea Party faction sets the agenda, Republican candidates are paying deference to that sentiment.

This explains why New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who sits left of the Republican centre, said that “parents need to have some measure of choice” about whether their children are vaccinated. Less surprising is the view of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul that the measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine can cause autism. Despite his medical qualifications as an opthamologist, this is consistent with his purist libertarian view that individuals should be free to choose about everything rather than be directed by government.

Paul’s libertarian counterpart in Australia is David Leyonhjelm, the Liberal Democratic Party’s NSW Senator. The LDP is big on small government, particularly in health. They would “abolish government involvement in delivery of health services”, privatise public hospitals and totally withdraw from funding medical research.

But on vaccination the LDP puts ideology aside: “The Liberal Democrats will maintain government involvement in the management of infectious diseases, such as through vaccinations. Preventing and managing disease is in an individual’s interests. However, preventing and managing infectious diseases is also in the interests of the broader community when the nature of contagion is indiscriminate.”

So what’s right wing and libertarian on the other side of the Pacific is the opposite over here. Anti-vaccination sentiment in Australia is strongest in areas like the NSW northern rivers and inner city suburbs, where the Green vote is higher than the national average.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s latest data on vaccination rates show the influence of this sentiment. While 92% of children were assessed as fully vaccinated at each of the 12-, 24- and 60-month milestones, the worst metric was the second dose of MMR vaccine, with 57% of doses given late and 9% given more than 6 months late.

Senators Leyonhjelm and Christine Milne could find a rare patch of common ground to turn that number around.

Simon Grose is Editor of Canberra IQ (canberraiq.com.au)