Australian government officials enforce vaccinations for school children by way of removing government funds from those parents who don’t comply with mandates. The law, termed “no jab, no pay,” is considered one of the most stringent laws in the world.
But the law maybe having unintended consequences in an area that no one saw coming.
The strict vaccination laws are prompting dramatically lower enrollments in areas where higher rates of families declined some or all vaccines prior to the law being enacted. And that has many pre-school concerned for the future of their schools.
Australia’s ABC affiliate reporter, Peter McCutheon, interviewed an educator named Pauline Hurcombe. Hurcombe is an educator at Mt. Warning Community Pre-School. During the interview, Hurcombe voices concerns over the drastic reduction in enrollments and what effects that’s having on educational systems. The assumption is that more and more parents are learning how to homeschool.
Here’s the transcript below:
PETER MCCUTCHEON, REPORTER: The Mt Warning Community Pre-School near Byron Bay in northern New South Wales is shrinking – from 60 enrolments now to 40 next year and probably even fewer from 2020 in an area that is growing.
You will be able to continue here, do you think?
PAULINE HURCOMBE, MT WARNING COMMUNITY PRE-SCHOOL: Well, we plan to but we will see. It is hard to tell.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: The problem is that half the children here are unvaccinated.
Under new State Government rules they are allowed to stay here, but their unvaccinated younger brothers and sisters are banned from enrolling in the future as part of a policy known as ‘no jab, no play’.
PAULINE HURCOMBE: And what do we do with those kids that are missing out? That is my concern. Where is the policy for them?
How do we get them that quality early childhood education which we know benefits us, their families, the nation, you know, everything.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: Pre-school directors and educators in the Northern Rivers District, all of them supporters of childhood vaccinations, are speaking out for the first time against a policy seen as a punishment rather than a means of persuasion.
LINA BEERLING, GUMNUT COMMUNITY PRE-SCHOOL, BURRINGBAR: I think it stinks. I think it is appalling. I think it is causing division.
SIMON ROBERTS, MULLUMBIMBY COMMUNITY PRE-SCHOOL: The more vaccinated, you know, the better we are, but that is still, what about the marginalised?
There is still a proportion of children that are slipping through the net there and are missing that vital pre-school education.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: Northern New South Wales is a hotspot for ant-vaxxers.
Nearly a third of children in some districts here are unvaccinated, compared to a national rate of less than 10 per cent with some devastating consequences.
TONI MCCAFFERY: My four-week-old baby coughed and coughed and coughed and coughed and coughed and coughed, which seemed like for minutes and went blue, stopped breathing and passed out in my arms and the hospital staff very calmly took her from me and put oxygen on her face and said, “Yup, classic whooping cough.”
PETER MCCUTCHEON: Baby Dana McCaffery died in 2009 at Lismore Hospital.
Her mother, Toni, is now part of a group that helps to promote informed debate about immunisation.
Heidi Robertson is the group’s coordinator.
HEIDI ROBERTSON, NORTHERN RIVERS VACCINATION SUPPORTERS: Vaccination rates have increased and they have increased slowly, but they continue to go up every time new data comes out.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: Many credit this increase to a Federal Government policy introduced three years ago of no jab, no-pay. It meant parents would lose a family benefit welfare payment if they failed to vaccinate their child.
HEIDI ROBERTSON: In a region like ours where nothing else has worked, this seems to be the one thing that has worked.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: Now a new state policy goes even further.
The pre-school ban on unvaccinated children will begin to bite in the new year, according to the director of the Gumnut Community Pre-School, Lina Beerling.
LINA BEERLING: Probably eight families where I’ve had to directly say “no” to. The first question is “Is your child immunised?”
And then if they say “no” then I have to look at them and say they can’t come and then look at the child and say, “I’m sorry, you can’t come.”
That is a really difficult thing to do.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: Katharina Gorka, who lives at Uki recently found out that her son, Manu, can’t join his sister, Maya, at preschool.
KATHARINA GORKA, NON-VACCINATING PARENT: I don’t think it is fair, to be honest. It makes me feel like we are a bit excluded from society, yeah.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: Did you ever think, “I’ll get my son vaccinated so I get around this pre-school problem”?
KATHARINA GORKA: No, I never thought about that.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: Why not?
KATHARINA GORKA: Because I have a set opinion on vaccinations and that is not going to change.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: And missing out on pre-school could cause a host of other problems.
LINA BEERLING: A lot of the time we are the first contact for links outside our services so early intervention, family centre support.
DR MARGIE DANCHIN, MURDOCH CHILDREN’S RESEARCH INSTITUTE: I think we need to carefully look at some of the unintended consequences of the policy and do an evaluation particularly around consequences for financial impacts on some families and educational impacts on children in those critical few years before they start school.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: Vaccinated children could also miss out if their local preschool has to close.
MARGIE DANCHIN: I am a very strong advocate for vaccination, both as an immunisation paediatrician and as a mum of four kids, but it is really important for us to be aware of the potential risks and benefits of these policies.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: On the plus side, pre-schools here say that the no jab, no play preschool exclusion policy has encouraged some parents to begin to vaccinate their children, but they say most ant-vaxxers just won’t budge.
Do you sometimes think when you are speaking to parents, “Oh, for goodness sake, just immunise your child and then your child can come to pre-school?”
SIMON ROBERTS: I would love to say that, but that is not my position and I don’t propose to purport that position to families or the preschool because it is their, that is their choice.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: For state and federal governments, it is a choice between two competing priorities – health and access to early education.
A parent with firsthand experience of childhood disease says health should always come first.
TONI MCCAFFERY: I know it sounds like tough love, however these diseases can and do kill and what this policy is all about is keeping childcare in pre-schools safer to protect our most vulnerable.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: But educators in this anti-vax heartland warn there is a price to be paid.
SIMON ROBERTS: Our number one interest is the children and to meet their learning outcomes.