I believe in vaccination so much that when my son was 16, I paid $400 to take him to the local GP so he too could benefit from Gardasil.
Isn't that the vaccination against cervical cancer? Why get a boy immunised?
Turns out that boys are susceptible to the human papilloma virus (HPV) which Gardasil works against. Not just susceptible but carry it in their mouths, not only carriers but also develop penile cancers.
I didn't know a lot about the vaccine at the time – but I ended up having quite a few chats with someone who worked in reproductive medical research, who said she thought Gardasil would lead to a dramatic decline in cancers caused by HPV.
Yes, I've always been a vaccinator. Flu shots. Hep B boosters for whooping cough. I choose to stay healthy. But there is a whole group of terrorists who are anti-vaccination. Too harsh to call them terrorists? Not really. By their acts, they devastate entire towns.
Now the federal government is coming down hard on these anti-vaxxers by denying them welfare benefits.
Parents who do not vaccinate their children will lose welfare payments of between $2100 and $15,000 per child in a new policy set to be announced before the May budget. The changes could save more than $50 million a year and the government is also preparing to scrap the conscientious objection provision which allows anti-vaccination parents to still claim welfare benefits including childcare assistance and Family Tax Benefit A. It will still allow religious objection and genuine medical exemption – even though of the 13 biggest church groups in Australia, not one bans vaccinations. Not one.
Yesterday I thought these punishments were a genius idea. Today I'm not so sure.
There are two groups of parents who don't vaccinate.
One, the objectors.
And two, a big group, which includes the disenfranchised, the disadvantaged, the disorganised. That second group also includes newcomers to Australia and the oldest Australians.
The first group are hardcore campaigners who are already on private Facebook groups wondering how they can rort the system. Here's an example. On the Facebook page Vaccine Free Australia, one poster called Saul has suggested others should join the Church of Conscious Living and "get your medical exemption signed by a doctor". He later tells others that he loves this church. "NO getting up early on Sundays to go and compare clothes, sing songs and hand over money PLUS I am 100% into their beliefs."
On the Australian Vaccination (Skeptics) Network, one woman asks if the AVN has any "advise for parents that will be effected by the now compulsory vaccination for Parenting payment and tax rebates soon to be denied those of us that know the truth? . . . .Will we really have to belong to a religion to uphold our freedom from the militarised medical system that seems to be forming?"
What freaks me out trawling these forums is the number of people who claim to have had advice from Centrelink staff on how to get around the religious requirements.
Should we remove benefits? Damn straight.
And please keep the objectors away from playgroups, schools and any other place they might come into contact with my putative grandchildren.
But it's the other group who I worry about. Don't punish them. Bribe them.
Alison Gaylard does it with cups of tea and the occasional glass of wine. She is part of the group which founded the Northern Rivers Vaccination Supporters, six core members who are working in the least vaccinated part of Australia – the area centred around Lismore and Mullumbimby. It's around 50 per cent compliance rate in children aged five and more than half that are official objectors. She and her husband run a small business and have two small daughters who contracted whooping cough in 2012 because the immunity in their area is rock bottom.
Now she and the NRVS group talk each and every day to ordinary parents. They've moved them from being anti to being open, from partial vaccinators to complete. And they've organised the disorganised onto catch-up schedules.
And if the federal government is going to save money, that money should be recycled to support programs like these.
The federal government should look for the evidence which shows us what works with those who aren't vaccinated. Fund people who go out into the community, like these amazing women and men in the Northern Rivers.
Over the last ten years, there has been an increase in those who register conscientious objection. The false views about vaccines being linked to autism seem to have taken hold –and anxiety about what ingredients do. It's hard to know exactly what to do about that except through education.
Which is where the government can actually do some good. By all means, fine those who conscientiously object. But when you've saved your $50 million, your job will be to find ways to change the minds of those who put their kids' lives on the line.
And that will require more than bullying.