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Post-Covid vaccination fatigue and it's impacting the future health of our youngest and most vulnerable

by Professor Peter Jones 

For a couple of weeks each year, I work at hospitals in the Solomon Islands. 

Professor of Paediatric Medicine, Peter Jones
Professor Peter Jones

It may be confronting to learn that a three-hour flight from Brisbane, young babies are dying of meningitis, and young women of 40 with cervical cancer are being sent home with a single packet of paracetamol to ease their suffering. 

In Australia, vaccines prevent both of these deadly conditions. 

Imagine for a moment if we did not have the whooping cough vaccine. 

We would lose thousands of otherwise healthy babies to this frightening bacterial infection. As a society, we would pay anything to prevent such grief. 

We take it for granted that illnesses such as measles, rubella, polio and meningitis are rare. 

Cervical cancer will soon be almost unknown in Australia because of vaccination. 

Yet despite the advantages vaccines have given us over many decades, we are seeing worrying trends. 

A Medical Journal of Australia research paper recently released found that vaccination fatigue after the COVID-19 pandemic was one reason behind the drop in the percentage of vaccinated 12-month old children in Australia, from 94.31 percent in 2019 to 93.16 percent in 2023. 

In the same study, negative parent perceptions about vaccines indicated that the vaccine coverage rate might be as low as 87 percent. 

This is well below Australia's target of a 95 per cent immunisation rate, the level required to ensure vaccine-preventable diseases are rare clinical events. People need to understand that illnesses like whooping cough, measles and chicken pox begin to re-emerge in children when vaccination rates drop. 

This year we have seen a serious pertussis epidemic in Queensland, with 3088 infections so far, compared to 224 in all of 2023.

Unfortunately, the concerted drive for us all to get the COVID vaccine has left some people feeling browbeaten. 

Sections of the public has switched off and no longer wish to engage with vaccination - and that is a concern because vaccinations drive herd immunity and are important to the health of us all. 

The challenge for government and the health community is how we re-engage with these people, many of whom oppose a "totalitarian" style of vaccination education such as that seen during the pandemic. 

Prior to COVID, a balanced "carrot and stick" approach saw Australia's vaccination rate among children improve from 53 percent in the late 1980s to 95 percent in 2020. 

It isn't just a question of getting the vaccination message out there. 

The challenge is the sheer volume of information across so many channels some of it questionable or downright wrong. 

As a result, more of the public believe some of the negative stories written about vaccination. 

That attitude is reflected in the MJA research paper which showed that the percentage of people who thought children got too many vaccines had risen from 17.2 percent in 2017 to 25.2 percent in 2023. 

The number of people who believed "vaccine ingredients cause harm" blew out from 14.6 percent in 2017 to 19.4 percent in 2023.

One of the newest vaccines to become mainstream combats the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) a particularly nasty illness that has already been responsible for 160,000 child deaths worldwide. 

If this vaccine succeeds there will be thousands of infants under the age of one who will no longer need admission for the treatment of bronchiolitis. 

In Australia we should be grateful for the great healthcare system we have, and that every child can have access to a magnificent immunisation schedule that makes terrible illnesses like meningitis, polio, tetanus, liver cancer, severe pneumonia, rubella and cervical cancer rare events. 

The messaging around vaccination needs capture a collective national and state pride for the outcomes that have been achieved in improving the health of community. 

Part of this is changing the way health issues are reported in Australia. Too often the narrative is one of doom and gloom, such as stories about "ramping". Factual reporting is justified, but to maintain public faith in healthcare we also need to report all the good that is done, particularly with vaccination. 

The lives of some of our youngest and most vulnerable are at stake.

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