CANBERRA, Australia – The Australian government has ramped up pressure on parents who oppose vaccination by threatening to withhold child care and other payments from families that fail to immunize their children.
The government announced this week that families could lose up to 15,000 Australian dollars ($11,400) per child per year in tax and child care benefits from Jan. 1, 2016, unless their children are vaccinated under a "no jab, no pay" policy.
The crackdown comes as similar moves to limit vaccination waivers in the United States have proved to be deeply divisive.
It also follows a new focus on vaccinating children in Australia after the death of a four-week-old baby last month of whooping cough in the west coast city of Perth. The parents of Riley John Hughes are campaigning on social media to eradicate the disease. It is particularly dangerous to babies under six months who are too young to be fully vaccinated.
The government is removing a category of "conscientious objector" that allowed parents to remain eligible for full welfare benefits despite not immunizing their children.
While 97 percent of Australian families that claim tax benefits for their offspring are vaccinated, the number of children under 7 years old who are not vaccinated because their parents are objectors has increased by more than 24,000 over the past decade to 39,000, a government statement said.
Parents will still be able to resist immunizing their children on medical and religious grounds without financial penalty.
But Family Services Minister Scott Morrison said only one church with fewer than 1,000 members had registered with the government its objection to vaccination.
Morrison would not publicly name the church, for fear that families would join the congregation to abuse the loophole. He told Perth Radio 6PR on Monday that the exemption would be closed if it was abused.
The public response to the announcement has been largely positive, but the head of the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of New South Wales, Prof. Raina MacIntyre, said the policy was unlikely to change the views of hardcore anti-vaccinators.
"Bringing in something draconian like this is not a very good public health strategy," she told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
The minor Greens party welcomed the policy, but said the government should also boost vaccination rates by investing in public education programs and subsidizing vaccines.
The government of neighboring New Zealand, where 94 percent of children are vaccinated, said it does not intend to follow Australia's example.
The Australian government's move comes after a growing fight vaccination in the United States. A California bill that would sharply limit vaccination waivers after a measles outbreak at Disneyland generated such an acidic debate that the proposal's author was under added security last week.
Authorities wouldn't specify the extra protections given state Sen. Richard Pan, but the level of anger has been clear. Opponents have flooded the Capitol to stand up for parental rights, and images that compare Pan to Adolf Hitler have circulated online.
Pan said he introduced the measure, Senate Bill 277, to limit inoculation waivers after a measles outbreak in December that started at Disneyland and sickened more than 100 people across the U.S. and in Mexico.
It would prevent parents from sending unvaccinated kids to school using waivers for religious or personal beliefs. Exemptions originally would have been available only for children with health problems, but they were recently expanded to include homeschoolers.
If it becomes law, California would join Mississippi and West Virginia as the only states with such strict vaccine requirements.
Similar plans have been proposed and have failed in other states, including Washington and Oregon, where lawmakers received a similar pushback.