Mothers the key to whether babies are immunised

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A mother's objection to vaccination is the single biggest reason 3 per cent of Australian infants aren't immunised, new research shows.

Meanwhile children from big families, with single parents or who move around a lot, are more likely to only be partially immunised.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies linked data from the Growing up in Australia long-term study of children with records from the Australian Childhood Immunisation Register to determine why some children were only partially immunised, or not at all.

Renae Smith and her daughters Kyah and Paris at home in Newtown. Renae changed her mind about immunising her daughters.
Renae Smith and her daughters Kyah and Paris at home in Newtown. Renae changed her mind about immunising her daughters.  Photo: Nic Walker

According to the latest figures from the Australian Childhood Immunisation Register, 93 per cent of one year olds are fully vaccinated. This is below the official target of 95 per cent immunisation coverage.

The AIFS study found that nearly 3 per cent of children at 12 months weren't immunised at all. A further 4 per cent were only partially immunised. 

Researchers found demography, home location, education level, income, cultural background and access to health services had no bearing on a child's immunisation status. Instead, it was a mother's attitude towards vaccinating.

Of the children who weren't immunised, half had mothers who disagreed with vaccination. A further 15 per cent had mothers who were neutral about the practice.

"Mothers who disagree with immunisation account for a very large proportion of of those children who aren't being immunised," said Associate Professor Ben Edwards from the Institute of Family Studies. He will present his findings at the Institute's conference next month.

Renae Smith did not immunise her two daughters because she was terrified they might suffer adverse effects from the vaccines. It wasn't until the family needed travel shots for an overseas holiday and her trusted GP explained the importance of childhood vaccination that she changed her mind. Ms Smith's daughters are now fully immunised.

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The odds of being behind in vaccinations were "significantly higher" for children from larger families. Children with single parents, or who moved around a lot, were also at risk.

Associate Professor Ben Edwards said the partially immunised were a "fertile ground" to boost overall immunisation rates. He suggested an SMS reminder service could be an effective low-cost way of prompting parents to keep up to date with immunisation.

"All parents want to do what is best for their kids," he said. "For people who agree with immunisation but have only partially completed [the schedule] this could support them to go ahead and do it."

If education and counselling for families who do not understand the benefit of immunisations fails, their children will ...
If education and counselling for families who do not understand the benefit of immunisations fails, their children will be excluded. Photo: Getty Images

Similarly policies that target mothers who are uncertain about immunisation could boost coverage. "There are parents who object to immunisation whose attitudes are difficult to change. However, some parents who are neutral may be persuaded to vaccinate their child."

Although mothers who disagree with vaccination tend to be firmly entrenched in their views, Associate Professor Edwards said it was still worthwhile having a public debate about the importance of immunisation.

It remains to be seen if the federal government's new "no jab, no pay" law (which denies parents some taxpayer subsidies if their children aren't up to date with their immunisations) will improve vaccination rates. Although the policy sparked a run on vaccines after it came into effect at the start of the year, official statistics are yet to be released.