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Will Australia's New Anti-Vax Law Be a Bellwether?

by Alison Hudson

April 13, 2015

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Donate By now, you've likely heard something about Australia's move this past weekend to enact a first-of-its-kind initiative to tie government childcare benefits to vaccination. Specifically, families in Australia seeking public childcare assistance who opt out of vaccinating their children for non-medical reasons will be denied two childcare assistance payouts meant in part to cover the cost of a babysitter or daycare. The government is also tightening religious objections, requiring that objectors belong to a religion whose ruling body has officially taken an anti-vax stance.

The Australian government has wisely chosen to frame this law aimed at "vaccine hesitancy" (so-called by the WHO) as one meant to protect other children. It cites the danger that non-vaccination poses to the public at large and insists that it gives vaccinating parents "confidence that they can take their children to childcare without the fear that their children will be at risk of contracting a serious or potentially life-threatening illness because of the conscientious objections of others." As anyone who has done rational research into vaccination knows, the herd immunity issue is a huge one, and basing this decision in that reasoning is sound. Vaccination is very much a public health issue; and those who work against the public health will now be denied the public's help.

Not surprisingly, the law quickly drew criticism in some corners. The anti-vax crowd quickly condemned the move, with social media crusaders and anti-vax organizations calling it a move to force parents to vaccinate their kids (it isn't, it just adds a consequence to the decision not to vaccinate) and starting up the expected online petition campaigns. I'm sure there will likely also some sort of legal challenge in Australian courts, though I haven't seen any actual news about that yet. A vocal minority, represented mainly in news and social media comments sections, is also taking issue with how this law is mainly targeting a certain segment of the population: those who need public assistance to get by. In some ways, it's making the choice to be anti-vax a privilege of the wealthy.

Even as an imperfect law, it's a step in the right direction. The important question to ask is: will Australia's new law be a bellwether for other nations plagued by the anti-vax movement?

One would hope so. Australia isn't the largest nor the most powerful government in the world, but they are a major continental government, and taking this step is certain to make other governments take notice. Should Australia's move withstand legislation and legal challenges, it could very well serve as a model for other governments looking to protect the health of their citizens.

Still, politics are complicated and I doubt many other countries will choose to be -- or have the ability to be -- as bold as Australia. Here in the United States, for example, I don't see the federal government moving to pass such a law anytime soon. Not only is our political system moving towards an election cycle, which always makes politicians skittish about bold political moves (unless they poll well); but welfare benefits are also very much under the state's sphere of control. It's possible that we could see a partial adoption of such laws in the U.S., depending upon the state and the political climate therein. Such state-level moves wouldn't have the teeth of a federal policy, though.

Cynical as it may sound, the fact that such a law could lead to the payout of fewer government subsidies to poor people is likely to appeal to some U.S. politicians and their constituents. Sadly, there are those out there who are all about stopping legitimately struggling families from getting much needed public assistance because Bootstraps and Drugs Maybe; perhaps they could turn their concern over welfare spending to a more legitimate cause and do us all some good.

In countries in Europe such as the U.K., where socialized medicine is the norm, perhaps there's an even more direct play that could be made: vaccinate or pay for your own healthcare. That would be another case of "punishing the poor" while wealthy anti-vaxxers gratefully suffer the oppression of having to pay for their medical coverage, though, so it's possible those governments would hesitate to do so.

Truly, there's no perfect solution to the irrational choice to not vaccinate a child. Imperfect or not, however, Australia has made the bold choice to act. It's a move that other governments need to take for the sake of the public health. It's tragic enough that anti-vax parents are basically free to place their own children at risk to appease their own stubborn ignorance of science and medicine; but the rest of us shouldn't have to see our kids put at risk as well.

by Alison Hudson

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