Topics: Free Meningococcal ACWY vaccines for 14-19 year olds; My Health Record; Australia Day
Good afternoon, and thank you to Sydney Boys High School for having us here today. It’s great to have the Minister for Health here with me, Mr. Greg Hunt, for an important announcement today about meningococcal vaccine and how the Government is continuing to work to keep Australians safe and healthy. Minister.
Thanks very much to Dave Sharma, our candidate for Wentworth and distinguished diplomat – one of our most extraordinary achievers on the international stage, as well as somebody who’s got a storied history in his own right on many different fronts.
To Professor Jodie McVernon, one of our leading specialists in vaccinations, who’s on the Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation. And of course, to Dr Jagger, the Principal of the amazing Sydney Boys High School, the home of our current Prime Minister, where he had much of his education. So, it’s a privilege to be here.
I am delighted to announce that the Australian Government will list the meningococcal vaccine for the A, C, W and Y strains on the National Immunisation Program, following the advice of the medical experts on the Technical Advisory Group and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee.
This will help up to a million teenagers receive free vaccinations over the coming four years. It’s about saving lives, protecting lives.
Meningococcal, as a disease, has seen its incidence rise from roughly 180 cases to 380 cases over the last four years. On my first day in the role, I asked the Chief Medical Officer to work with the companies, to work with the states on bringing forward an application.
That’s now being completed, it adds to what we have done in February of this year where we made the ACWY vaccine available for infants at the 12-month age bracket.
And now, above all else, this is for parents’ peace of mind, for teenagers, it’s about safety. And it’s based on the medical advice, that it’s safe and that it’s effective. We couldn’t have a stronger contribution from our medical experts. It’s a $52 million investment, and it’s the sort of thing that you can only do if you have a strong economy.
And only today, we’ve seen the results of that strong economy; the lowest deficit in a very long period of time, incredible outcome which has seen more people in work. And this is what Dave is fighting for, because this seat is critical to the Government having the capacity to do more things, not just to promote health, but also to promote a strong economy, getting people into work, taking people off welfare. And that ultimately helps deliver not just the economic outcomes, but the essential services.
So, all of these things come together, and in today’s announcement, what we see is saving lives and protecting lives, following the advice of the medical experts. And when they recommend, we will list these new medicines. But at the end of the day, for parents and for teenage years, there will be more peace of mind, better protection and better health outcomes. Jodie.
Thank you. I’m really delighted to be here today and to hear the introduction of this vaccine on the national program. As the Minister said, I’ve been part of a whole committee of technical experts who provided advice to prove that this disease was increasing in Australia, that there is a safe and effective vaccine that’s available to help prevent it.
And then it’s been through further rigorous process and all of that information together is showing that it’s cost effective. So, it’s a really exciting announcement.
This a very serious disease, it progresses very rapidly. It’s fortunately rare, but the best way to reduce its impact is to prevent it from the outset.
This is the second phase of the program, so as you’re probably aware, there’s been a Men-C vaccine in use for 12 months for some time, and that was switched to this ACWY vaccine that protects against more strains of meningococcal some time ago.
And this second phase now is really looking to extend that protection to the population more effectively. So, teenagers are an age group that carry the meningococcal bug up their nose, more commonly than everybody else.
And there’s actually a rapid rise in that from the age of about 15, where maybe less than one in ten carry it, to the age of 20 when up to one in five people will actually carry the bug. It’s usually harmless, but that increase is associated with an increase in the risk of disease of these groups.
So, vaccinating adolescents is a really important way to protect them. Because of that increasing carriage, they’re also more at risk of spreading the disease to other people.
So, vaccinating young adolescents is a great way of helping to protect their friends and their families, and to protect the population at large. So, that’s the strategy behind this particular phase of the program.
Great. Thank you very much. Happy to take any questions on meningococcal and vaccination and then anything else.
How are you going to persuade the anti-vaccinators out there? Obviously, there are groups there and they seem to be growing, how are you going to persuade them?
Well, I think the critical thing is to make the case that this is about saving lives and protecting lives. Sadly, we have seen the case of the loss of life from whooping cough.
I met with a mum, Tonie (inaudible), who lost her beautiful little daughter to whooping cough, when it’s likely that that condition was acquired from an unvaccinated child. The more that we provide information, the stronger the case.
And with Jodi here, it’s absolutely clear that vaccinations are safe, that they are effective, and that they do save lives. And not vaccinating your children is putting your children at risk. We’ve had the great Professor Ian Frazer help lead a national immunization campaign, and we will continue with that message with a stepped up campaign in the coming months.
Is it irresponsible, Minister, indeed not to vaccinate?
Well our view, as the Health Department, is that vaccination is safe, it’s effective, and that it is absolutely vital to allowing children to have the best possible protection.
When are we going to see meningococcal B vaccine on the PBS?
So, we have encouraged and invited the sponsors to put forward an application, they’re currently going through a large clinical trial process in South Australia. So, the answer is: As soon as there is an application, and it’s found to be safe and effective by the medical experts, we will list it.
One of the things is the previous Labor government deferred the listing of medicines. We guarantee – and I’ve been in contact only with the Finance Minister today, who was reaffirming his deep personal commitment to this – that if the medical experts recommend a new medicine or a new vaccine, we will list it.
Because Bexsero has been knocked back several times, is that only ever under a Labor government?
No, these are independent medical processes, so there are two very different things here. Vaccinations, all medicines, have to be assessed by law through an independent medical process and we shouldn’t and won’t interfere in that. But once that is accepted as safe and effective, then a recommendation comes forward and we will always list..
I might just get your name again, sorry.
Thank you, Jodie. Can you explain then why is it rising in incidence, you said?
The Men W in particular?
So, meningococci are not all created equal and even if we call them A, C, W, and Y, they’re not all exactly the same. It’s like saying I drive a red car but is it a Ferrari or a Mini? So this particular strain of Men W is a new variant.
It emerged in South America. It spread to the UK. It started causing an increase in disease in the UK and it since spread to other countries in Europe which, the Netherlands for example, has had a fourfold increase in cases due to this particular strain.
So, clearly we’ve been consulting with international experts, we’ve been watching what’s happening in the UK and Europe. A vaccine program has been introduced for adolescents in Europe and following on that program logic about how it’s most likely to protect the population, this adolescent campaign has been recommended.
Is it more serious or just on the same level as an infant- teenage compared to an infant?
So, meningococcal disease at any age can be very serious. This particular strain though is more likely to show unusual symptoms, so it’s a bit harder to detect.
It’s also more likely to cause severe disease than some other meningococcal strains and it has been associated with a higher death rate in all the countries where it’s been found. So, this particular one was flagged as a public health concern very early and that’s really driven this shift in the campaign.
And again the symptoms.
So the symptoms of meningococcal disease, we talk about a non-blanching rash, headache, fever. Often in the early phases it can be like a cold, but looking for that rash is really important.
This particular strain sometimes presents with diarrhoea so that’s really hard, it’s very non-specific. It’s really about being vigilant. It’s about thinking and particularly, looking for the rash, seeking medical advice, and clearly, preventing it in the first place which is why vaccination is so important.
Minister, you said this is for the next four years. What happens at the end of that four years?
No once something’s listed, it’s ongoing subject to any medical review. So it’s not a time-limited funding, that’s just what the funding will be over the course of the budget cycle.
(Inaudible) on a related topic, Minister, the My Health Record inquiry is underway and we’re already hearing from a number of GPs and consumer advocate groups who say that they remain concerned about the scheme and despite the two or three changes that you have put before the Parliament.
And one GP, in particular, who runs a school-based clinic in Tasmania has decided to actually close down because of he says teenagers’ privacy concerns, that their parents will be able to see their health records under the scheme by default.
Do you understand, accept and sympathise with these and other concerns that are remaining and are you willing to listen to their concerns and make further changes should that inquiry recommend such changes?
Look, the legislation for strengthening privacy has already passed the House. It now goes to the Senate and we’ll respond to any of the Senate proposals or recommendations as they come in but I have to say, the scheme has been operating for six years.
There are now more than six million Australians who have participated, and the opt out rate – because it is a voluntary scheme – is far lower than we had anticipated. The opt in rate has been higher than we’d expected, the opt out has been lower.
But the beauty of it is, every person has control of their own circumstances and today is exactly the type of thing which could be recorded on it.
So, for busy mums or busy dads, who may not have all of the details of vaccinations, who may not have all of the details of illnesses; or if you’re no longer in contact with your parents or your parents have passed away and you don’t know all of the details of what issue or condition or illness you may have had as a child, the record can provide that for a lifetime so..
It doesn’t concern you that teenagers are being stripped of health care because of privacy concerns?
I’m happy to look at any examples if any specific examples are brought forward. So, our approach is very simple.
We’ll respond to public suggestions, we’ll consider them very carefully and ultimately, this will – as the head of the AMA has said – save lives and it will help protect lives, and it couples with what we’re doing on vaccinations.
Minister, the Prime Minister’s Australia Day slash Indigenous Day idea, what do you think?
Actually, I strongly endorse the idea. It’s something I had been thinking through myself. I have to confess, I hadn’t spoken to Scott about it, but I had been thinking about the issue and just talking with friends at a local level about it.
And there was a common view that you’d want to keep Australia Day because it’s such a profoundly important day in our nation’s history, but at the same time, it would be potentially very valuable, subject to consulting with Indigenous leaders and the Indigenous community and the broader Australian community, to have some national Indigenous recognition.
So, I think it’s got a lot of merit and it’s something that I have to say that I’ve been thinking about myself, but he’s crystallised it in a very positive, practical way.
It’s not your idea, is it?
No, it’s not actually. It’s something that I’ve been discussing with friends but not with Scott, so Scott has developed it and all credit to him.
What’s happened is he’s started with this incredible, practical energy; what he brings is decisiveness but a practical understanding of Australia at the community level, and I’m really excited about where he’s at and what he’s doing for the country and the fact that he understands the rhythm and the movement of the Australian community. All right.
Can I just Mr Sharma a question? Kerryn Phelps has announced she’s going to preference the Liberals, is that good or bad news from your point of view? Aren’t Liberals now going to feel they can make a protest vote and still hedge their bets?
Well, I’m very much focused on my own campaign and convincing the electorate why it’s important to support me.
But I would make the point that there’s only one Liberal candidate in the race here and that’s me. So, if people want to see a Liberal representative in Wentworth and a strong Liberal government in Canberra that’s (inaudible) saving lives, keeping the economy strong, keeping the country safe, then they should be voting Liberal number one in Wentworth. Thank you.