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Australia needs an expanded immunisation register

Allen C Cheng, Carmel M Hobbs and Priscilla M Robinson
Med J Aust 2008; 188 (4): 263.
Published online: 18 February 2008

To the Editor: We agree wholeheartedly with Skull and Nolan’s call for a lifetime immunisation register to enhance monitoring of coverage, provide a clinical support service and provide data for program evaluation.1 An expanded register could also provide information on the vaccine coverage for childhood diseases that may increasingly affect adults (such as varicella and measles), for immigrants who may receive childhood vaccines after childhood, and for occupational groups (eg, influenza vaccine for health care workers).

However, we note some policy implications that need to be addressed before such an expanded register could be implemented. In August 2007, at a La Trobe University seminar on human papillomavirus vaccination, the 180 participants (mainly students and staff of La Trobe University) were asked to fill out a survey that included a question about the acceptability of a lifetime vaccination register. Of the 154 who responded, 8.5% were not in favour of such a register and another 8.5% declined to answer that question (unpublished data). This suggests that there may be significant barriers to the implementation of a lifetime register.

Principal among the concerns cited were the implications for privacy, which were also noted by consumer groups.2 As with the existing Australian Childhood Immunisation Register, people will need to be aware of what data are being collected (including policies for data retention), their choice to opt out, and a clearly defined purpose in gathering the data (in particular, that the data will not be used in a punitive manner). People will also need to be assured that there are unambiguous policies governing access to the register and penalties associated with breaches of confidentiality.

These concerns have led to the suggestion that a private health record should be developed instead,2 but such a record would be unlikely to be adopted widely and could not be used for monitoring or program evaluation.

Development of an expanded register could also present potentially significant logistical problems. We would suggest a staged approach, beginning with expanding the current childhood register to include adolescents of school age and elderly people. Incentives to improve vaccine coverage in these groups could be modelled on the current General Practice Immunisation Incentives Scheme, which provides service incentive payments, outcomes-based payments and immunisation infrastructure funding. Many Indigenous Australians are currently covered through Aboriginal-controlled community health organisations. With the consent of those organisations, data could be absorbed into a national register. Later stages of implementation might see the inclusion of special groups (such as post-splenectomy patients and immigrants) and people receiving occupation-related and travel-related vaccines. The register could eventually be expanded to encompass the full Australian population.

The current redevelopment scoping study for the Australian Childhood Immunisation Register3 is due for completion in 2008. We support enhancing the current central register, but clearly defined policies to protect privacy are required to address public concerns.

  • Allen C Cheng1
  • Carmel M Hobbs2
  • Priscilla M Robinson2

  • 1 Department of Medicine, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC.
  • 2 School of Public Health, La Trobe University, Melbourne, VIC.

Correspondence: allenc@menzies.edu.au

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