Australian schools should not be allowed to enrol children who are not immunised against diseases such as diphtheria, measles and whooping cough, says the federal schools minister David Kemp.
Dr Kemp has called on Australia's state and territory governments to introduce mandatory child immunisation as a condition of school enrolment. He says schools have a responsibility to ensure that all children are safe from potentially life-threatening diseases.
Children who are not immunised put at risk the lives of other children, Dr Kemp says, so teachers should take all appropriate measures to ensure their pupils are safe from such diseases. Australia's immunisation rate of 53 per cent is one of the lowest in the world, but the issue of immunisation must be addressed urgently, he says.
Although immunisation is the responsibility of parents, all tiers of government, schools and the general community could play a role in ensuring that as many children as possible are immunised. Under the Kemp plan, parents who are opposed to immunisation on religious or moral grounds would be exempted.
The proposal has the backing of the Australian Council of State School Organisations, which says mandatory immunisation is an issue that has to be considered.
State education ministers, however, have reacted cautiously, with those in New South Wales and Queensland ruling out compulsory immunisation. The NSW education minister, John Aquilina, has said that while state governments have an obligation to educate children between the ages of five and 16, they cannot impose mandatory immunisation.
"You can't use a statutory instrument to bludgeon people into their moral responsibilities," Mr Aquilina said.
The federal government, however, says it will introduce a scheme to punish parents who fail to have their children immunised by reducing their child-care assistance and maternity allowances. The federal health minister Dr Michael Wooldridge says the full maternity allowance will only be paid when a child is 18 months old and has been immunised. Families whose children are not immunised will be refused child-care payments, including a child-care cash rebate.
"Australian children are dying of utterly preventable illnesses, and I have no intention of going down in history as the minister who sat on his hands while children were dying unnecessarily," Dr Wooldridge said.
He estimates that refusing child-care payments to parents whose children are not immunised would potentially affect about 500,000 children, or 40 per cent of those under school age.