Vaccine-preventable childhood diseases in Australia

Gavin W Frost and Monica Johns
Med J Aust 1996; 164 (2): 61-62.
Published online: 15 January 1996

Vaccine-preventable childhood diseases in Australia

Too much disease, not enough vaccination: what more can we do?

MJA 1996; 164: 61

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- ©MJA1997

In 1994, there were 17 442 notifications of vaccine- preventable diseases in Australia.1 This disgraceful situation exists despite the ready availability of free, safe and effective vaccines. Particularly damning were the 8661 cases of pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella and Haemophilus influenzae type b notified in children up to school leaving age (19 years old) -- all diseases for which a national immunisation program has been in place for many years!

Why do we still have so much disease despite good vaccines and good delivery systems?

While there is a lack of uniform reliable data on vaccination coverage, it would seem our national childhood vaccination rates are inadequate. The Australian Bureau of Statistics' 1989-90 National Health Survey reported that, according to parental recall, 53% of children up to six years of age had been vaccinated in accord with the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) vaccination schedules.2 Unpublished data from State health departments include the report of a 1991 cluster survey in Victoria of 630 children aged 18 months to 3 years which found that 88% were fully vaccinated against diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio and measles (John Carnie, Manager, Infectious Diseases Unit, Victorian Department of Health and Community Services, Melbourne, personal communication); a 1994 ACT report found that only 67% of 236 children at school entry (aged about five years) were fully vaccinated (Ms Ann Kempe, Immunisation Coordinator, ACT Department of Health and Community Care, Canberra, personal communication).

Whatever the true vaccination coverage, continuing notifications (in the thousands) of cases of measles, with its well-known risks of encephalitis, bronchopneumonia and subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), highlight how much still needs to be done. In the United Kingdom a recent national measles-rubella immunisation program has successfully terminated measles virus circulation in schools; in March and April 1995, there were four confirmed cases of measles in England and Wales; three cases had recently arrived in the country, and the other occurred in an unvaccinated 15-month-old child.3 In Australia there were 229 measles notifications for the same period (National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System, personal communication).

there is still a lack
of awareness on the part of parents and even some health practitioners of the benefit-risk equation for vaccination
On the other hand, notifications of invasive Haemophilus influenzae type b have decreased from at least 3.5 cases per 100 000 population in 19911 to 1 case per 100 000 in 1994.1 Within three years we may see less than a quarter the number of cases of childhood bacterial meningitis recorded in 1990 -- evidence of the benefit of effective vaccination.

The National Childhood Immunisation Committee has implemented a number of initiatives over the past two years to increase vaccination coverage rates in line with the goals of the 1993 NHMRC National Childhood Immunisation Strategy.4 More than 30 000 copies of a kit, which included the fifth edition of the Australian immunisation procedures handbook,5 were distributed to general practitioners and other vaccination service providers. A parents' guide to immunisation, Understanding childhood immunisation,6 was also produced and widely distributed; a recent mass media awareness campaign offers this booklet free to enquirers through a toll-free telephone number (1800 671 811). Such initiatives have received broad professional and community support from organisations such as the Australian Medical Assocation, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the Australian College of Paediatrics, the Australian Institute of Environmental Health, the Sudden Infant Death Association and the NHMRC.

Technical considerations also play a role in ensuring the optimal efficacy of vaccines: guidelines and systems for cold-chain maintenance have been implemented (some local studies have suggested that some vaccine providers have difficulty maintaining vaccines at between 2-81/4C7,8 ); knowledge of the thermolability of reconstituted measles-mumps- rubella vaccines and of oral polio vaccine at room temp erature is another important consideration.

The safety and efficacy of vaccines are apparent to all but a few. A scheme to record, follow-up and regularly publish significant adverse events following vaccination has been under way since March 1995 (general practitioners and other providers notifying respective State or Territory health authorities by telephone). The data are collated, reviewed and published monthly in Communicable Diseases Intelligence. Adverse event rates of less than 1% have been recorded, although the data are as yet incomplete.

Nevertheless, there is still a lack of awareness on the part of parents and even some health practitioners of the benefit-risk equation for vaccination, at least for some vaccines. A few individuals who propagate tired myths of exaggerated vaccination harm, however sincerely, make it more difficult to provide concerned parents with balanced benefit-risk information.

To address this problem Commonwealth funding of $24 million has been allocated towards childhood vaccination during 1995-96 and 1996-97. Most of this outlay is provided to the States and Territories to purchase NHMRC standard childhood immunisation schedule vaccines in return for their undertaking to provide a coordinated program. Some of this funding will be used to obtain better information about vaccination coverage via the Australian Childhood Immunisation Register, which commenced on 1 January 1996. Information from the Register will enable resources to be targeted effectively to assist areas with the lowest coverage rates.

Combination 4-in-1 (tetravalent) and 5-in-1 (pentavalent) vaccines (e.g., against diphtheria, tetanus, polio, Haemophilus influenzae type b and hepatitis B), less reactogenic acellular pertussis vaccines, as well as a varicella vaccine, are soon to appear on local markets. On the eve of the third millennium, once again we as a nation will need to debate the cost-benefit of disease prevention. In this debate we must acknowledge how far we have come in the two hundred years since Jenner's successful inoculations against smallpox, and how far we have yet to go.

Gavin W Frost
Senior Medical Adviser, AIDS/Communicable Diseases Branch
Commonwealth Department of Human Services and Health, Canberra, ACT

Monica Johns
Senior Project Officer, National Childhood Immunisation Program
Commonwealth Department of Human Services and Health, Canberra, ACT

  1. Hargreaves J, Longbottom H, Myint H, et al. Annual Report of the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System 1994. Commun Dis Intell 1995; 19: 542-574.
  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics. 1989-90 National Health Survey Children's Immunisation Survey, Australia. Canberra: ABS, 1992. (Catalogue No. 4379.0.)
  3. Interruption of measles transmission in school schildren, 1995. Wkly Epidemiol Rec 1995; 70: 215-216.
  4. National Health and Medical Research Council. National Immunisation Strategy. Canberra: NHMRC/AGPS, 1993.
  5. National Health and Medical Research Council. The Australian immunisation procedures handbook. 5th ed. Canberra: AGPS, 1995.
  6. Herceg A, Shelley S. Understanding childhood immunisation. Canberra: Commonwealth Department of Human Services and Health, 1995.
  7. Liddle JL, Harris MF. How general practitioners store vaccines. A survey in south-western Sydney. Med J Aust 1995; 162: 366-368.
  8. Herceg A, Longbottom H. A national immunisation provider survey. Canberra: Commonwealth Department of Human Services and Health, 1995.

©MJA 1997

<URL:> © 1997 Medical Journal of Australia.

  • Gavin W Frost
  • Monica Johns



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