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The Health Wrap: Please explain on vaccination, a decade of closing the gap, playing politics, sugar and more

This fortnight’s Health Wrap is compiled by Barry Dunning, Media and Communications Manager at the Sax Institute. Enjoy the wrap and don’t forget to tweet us @SaxInstitute if you have any ideas you’d like to share.


A “Please Explain” on vaccination

The safety of childhood vaccination burst back onto the public and political agenda over the past fortnight. Appearing on ABC’s Insiders program, leader of the One Nation Party and Queensland Senator Pauline Hanson questioned the safety and effectiveness of childhood vaccination programs, stating that there were reports that “vaccinations have an effect on some children”, and encouraged parents to “do their own research”  and to “have a test and see if (your children) don’t have a reaction to it first. Then you can have the vaccination”. She also hit out at the Government’s successful “no jab, no pay” program, accusing the government of “blackmailing” parents by withholding welfare payments for unvaccinated children.

Ms Hanson’s comments provoked a storm of controversy and condemnation, with health experts, politicians and families of those who have suffered due to vaccine-preventable diseases lining up to condemn her remarks. Writing in The Conversation vaccination experts Kristine Macartney, Julie Leask and Nicholas Wood addressed Ms Hanson’s claims around  the availability of a test your child can take before getting vaccinated stating that “there is no blood test to see if vaccines shouldn’t be given. In fact, the best ‘test’ for a deciding if a vaccine is appropriate is taking a good old medical history.” Head of the Grattan Institute and former Federal Health Department head Stephen Duckett was far less circumspect in his criticism, telling ABC Radio he was “disgusted” by the remarks:

This is a situation where you’ve got a popular politician with a significant following who’s actually giving crazy, crazy medical advice…She has to apologise and retract that statement.

Sharyn Pitman, who lost her 19-day-old daughter to whooping cough in 1997 because she was too young to be vaccinated, told The New Daily the senator’s comments were “very insulting”:

To claim that vaccines can cause harm is very insulting to myself and the many others who have lost children to various horrendous preventable diseases simply because they were either too young to be vaccinated or the correct information or vaccine was simply not offered…Vaccines, if available, would have more than likely saved the lives of our children. Instead we watched them suffer and die from a painful death that could have been prevented.

Even the Prime Minister joined in, offering a rare rebuke of Senator Hanson. As reported in The Sydney Morning Herald, Malcolm Turnbull said that ” the health of our children, the health of the nation, depends on vaccination and that has to be as close to 100 per cent as possible… It is a vital health objective to ensure that everybody is vaccinated.” This firestorm of controversy provoked a rare climbdown from Senator Hanson, who apologised live to Channel 7’s Sunrise program after saying she’d heard from medical experts that a vaccination test existed.

“Yes, I do apologise. If that be the case, I am wrong, all right. I was of the opinion [a vaccination test existed] that I did read that was the case. Um, apparently it’s not.”

The controversy saw renewed debate around the importance of childhood vaccinations, with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten writing to the Prime Minister urging him to launch a national education campaign about vaccination, according to News.com.au. As reported in The Courier Mail, almost 200,000 children who were previously not vaccinated were immunised last year under the Government’s “No Jab, No Pay” policy and the Government signalled that it is considering a new nationwide ban on unvaccinated children attending childcare centres or preschools, or “no jab, no PLAY”.

Croakey offered a detailed and in-depth discussion of the issues, with Professor Julie Leask arguing that vaccination rules should be fair to all children.


A decade of Closing the Gap

Thursday, 16 March, marked Close the Gap Day with the Close the Gap campaign issuing its ninth annual Progress and Priorities report, which, according to the ABC, criticised the “stop-start” approaches of successive governments. Jackie Huggins, the campaign’s co-chair and co-chair for the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, said each year she expected to see improvements, “yet we’re going backwards”. The report went on to suggest that the  Federal Government had, “failed to listen or act on the recommendations of the Close the Gap Steering Committee” and listed  15 recommendations, including a call for a national summit this year between federal, state and territory politicians and community leaders .

Patricia Turner, CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation and co-chair of the Close the Gap Campaign, penned an opinion piece for NITV to mark 10 years of Close the Gap asking:  “Why are we sicker, poorer and living shorter than the rest of Australia?”

At Croakey, HealthInfonet Director, Dr Neil Drew wrote that the confronting statistics on Aboriginal health outcomes reflect lived experience for many. While Dr Drew does not shy away from the many problems and entrenched challenges in the area, stating that it was important to recognise where real progress has been made, on issues such as infant mortality, overall longevity, decreased respiratory, hepatitis B and dental problems. His article is definitely worth a read.

Croakey also covered the Close the Gap Campaign report’s calls for a national inquiry into racism and institutional racism in healthcare settings (especially hospitals), and for the Federal Health Department to ensure the inquiry’s findings are incorporated into actioning of the Implementation Plan of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan 2013-2023. Summer May Finlay argued that the Federal Government’s ongoing reluctance to establish national justice targets showed its inability to listen responsively to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, noting this was the fourth such report to call for these targets.

Writing in the Huffington Post, The Minister for Indigenous Health and Aged Care Ken Wyatt also acknowledged the mixed results  of this year’s Closing the Gap Report, nothing that:

We are making some strides in tackling Indigenous health issues, however, we have to do more. We all want health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that are equal to those of non-Indigenous people. Until that happens we cannot claim to have a truly universal health system that meets the needs of all Australians.

Still with Aboriginal health, this piece on Croakey addresses the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the necessity to “promote and support community-based programs to meet Indigenous people’s needs” and this article tackles a really fascinating issue – why ‘green-black’ alliances, between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and wider environmental movements, are less simple than they seem.


Playing politics

At the beginning of March, the Labor Party held a Health Summit in Melbourne and Croakey was there to cover the action. As Marie McInerney summarises in her in-depth (crowd-funded) coverage:

Labor’s national health policy summit on Friday put health equity, prevention, and better integration of fragmented services at the heart of its health policy development in the lead-up to the next election.

While no new big announcements or policy directions were announced, she reported that participants told Croakey there were benefits in having a crowd of 150 people committed to improving health in the same room, sharing an agenda with people outside their own ‘silos’ and reiterating key issues and messages with politicians and advisors that they often don’t get to reach.

In Western Australia, the Labor Party was celebrating, with voters delivering a clear endorsement of Mark McGowan‘s WALabor and thumping to Colin Barnett‘s Liberal Party. WA will have Australia’s first Indigenous Treasurer in Ben Wyatt, who is related to Federal Minister Ken Wyatt.  Deputy premier-elect Roger Cook will take on both the health and mental health portfolios.

Croakey asked regular contributor and WA-based public health advocate, Dr Melissa Stoneham to provide a run-down, on what the new Premier and his colleagues might be expected to serve up to on the public health front. You can read that one here.

Sticking with politics, Croakey also published an article on health advocacy from health consultant Terry Barnes,  former advisor to Coalition Health Ministers Michael Wooldridge and Tony Abbott, and an advocate for the now shelved $7 GP co-payment.  In his piece, Mr Barnes set out six practical pointers for lobbying government on health, within an over-arching message to “bring thought-through, win-win solutions, not just gripes about the problem and insisting the Government fixes it.” Plenty of Mr Barnes’ advice mirrors that given by former Health Minister, and Labor Party MP, Nicola Roxon in a recent interview for the Sax Institute’s journal Public Health Research & Practice. The decision by Croakey to publish Mr Barnes was not universally welcomed, however, with Professor Simon Chapman questioning the decision on Twitter, going so far as to ask “why write for Croakey when your support lies with a right wing think tank?” You can read more on that, and Mr Barnes’ response here.


Sugar, sugar – oh honey, honey

The idea of a sugar tax continues to gain Australian and international traction. As reported in the last edition of The Health Wrap, the case for an Australian sugar tax continues to grow, with new research led by the Australian Prevention Partnership Centre advocating a sugar tax as one of four key national policy positions to be taken to tackle obesity. The research comes as Westmead Hospital in Sydney’s west announced a three-month trial ban on the sale of sugar-sweetened drinks from it vending machines and food outlets. If successful, the trial will be rolled out to other nearby hospitals including Blacktown, Mount Druitt and Auburn, according to news.com.au.

On the international front, The Guardian reported that Mexico’s sugar tax has led to fall in consumption of sugary drinks for the second year running and the Conservative government in the UK is pushing ahead with a new tax on sugary drinks to commence in April 2018, according to The Independent. The impending sugar tax is already having the desired effect on some manufacturers, with one of Scotland’s favourite (and most sugar filled) soft drinks, Irn Bru, announcing plans to halve the sugar content in the drink as part of wider plans to respond to a proposed Government crackdown on the beverage industry.  Meanwhile, a US study listed sugary drink consumption as among the five worst dietary habits for health, according to this report from Statnews.com .


Trumpcare

Speaking of the USA, President Donald Trump has unveiled his plans to replace the Affordable Health Care Act (aka Obamacare) with the American Health Care Act (aka Trumpcare). While it has taken time for the full details of the plan to become clear, it appears than 24 million American citizens will lose access to healthcare under the plan, according to a critique by the non-partisan US Congressional Budget Office. The New York Times has produced detailed analysis and maps of who wins and loses from the new bill and as Paul McGeough succinctly puts it for the Sydney Morning Herald:

The new bill walks away from Trump’s campaign promises not to cut the associated Medicaid scheme for the poor, and of “insurance for everybody”; abandons the Republican Party’s explicit promise of relief from steep policy premiums and high deductibles; and breaches its explicit promise that millions would not lose their insurance – all of which, Trump is reportedly being warned by loyalists, would fracture his coalition of working and middle-class voters, many of whom are older and get by on federal aid.

Finally, and on a related note, The Conversation has the full audio and a written summary of former US Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich’s keynote address to Universities Australia’s higher education conference, where Bleich speaks about Trump, disruptive technology, and the role of education in a changing economy. Essential listening/reading for the weekend.


Other Croakey reading you may have missed this fortnight:

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