Letter to Australian Prime Minister re vaccination policy in Australia – response

Australia-Needle-ShadowThe Australian Prime Minister is ultimately responsible for the Federal Government’s vaccination schedule, which effectively mandates vaccination interventions for healthy people, particularly children.

In this regard I forwarded letters to former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, questioning vaccination policy in Australia.

In the first instance my letter to (former) Prime Minister Abbott (21 January 2015) requests he urgently address the problem of potential conflicts of interest and lack of disclosure by members of groups influencing vaccination policy in Australia, i.e. 

  • the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI);
  • the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC);
  • the TGA Advisory Committee on the Safety of Vaccines (ACSOV);
  • the Australian Influenza Vaccine Committee (AIVC); and
  • the Working Group and Oversight Committee for the Australian Academy of Science publication The Science of Immunisation: Questions and Answers, which was funded by the Australian Federal Government’s Department of Health and Ageing.

In my letter to (former) Prime Minister Abbott I describe the lack of transparency and accountability for the groups providing advice on vaccine products to the Australian Federal Government, there is an alarming amount of secrecy in this area.

As the influence of  these groups can result in the imposition of medical interventions (i.e. vaccinations) for healthy people, and massive sales of lucrative vaccine products for pharmaceutical companies, it is vital that the process of adding vaccine products to the national vaccination schedule is open and transparent, and that any potential conflicts of interest of the members of these groups are accessible for public perusal.

I have now received a response to my letter to Tony Abbott from the Immunisation Branch of the Department of Health*, which indicates we may be at last obtaining some sunlight on this matter, at least in regards to the ATAGI committee.  The letter advises:

The ATAGI has an established process for the declaration and, if necessary, the management of CoIs.  At its 19-20 February 2015 meeting ATAGI reviewed the COI policy and agreed to publish details of the CoIs of its members on the Immunise Australia website to improve transparency.  It is anticipated this information will be published in March 2015.”  

Checking the Immunise Australia website, the information on conflicts of interest is now finally available – refer to this document which discloses potential conflicts of interest for members and ex-officio members of ATAGI. 

The document makes for interesting reading as many of the members, and an ex-officio member, of ATAGI have associations with pharmaceutical companies via funding for clinical trials and travel expenses.  (It is notable that information re ex-officio member Professor Peter McIntyre has been altered in the recent version of this document, removing reference to Novartis, Sanofi, bioCSL, Baxter, and Janssen & Janssen (Crucell), and leaving reference to only GSK, Pfizer and Merck.)

I requested this information from then Health Minister Nicola Roxon in November 2011 and from then ATAGI Chair Professor Terry Nolan in March 2013 – why has it been kept secret for so long?  Why do citizens such as myself have to fight for access to this information in our liberal democracy?

It is notable that only information for current members and ex-officio members of ATAGI is currently accessible.  I suggest it is imperative that this information be retrospective and also detail associations with the pharmaceutical industry of previous members.  

For instance Professor Terry Nolan has only recently departed the ATAGI Chair, yet there is no information on his potential conflicts of interest in the recently published document.  

An article published in Australian Doctor in November 2005 titled “We’ll be fast: new vax boss” notes that: “The new head of the Federal Government’s revised vaccine advisory group, Professor Terry Nolan, will prioritise timely responses to new vaccines and industry developments…” 

As Professor Nolan has overseen the addition of vaccine products to the national schedule during his long tenure, including the Merck/bioCSL Gardasil HPV vaccine and GlaxoSmithKline’s Priorix-Tetra measles, mumps, rubella and varicella vaccine, I suggest it is imperative that potential conflicts of interest during his tenure should also be disclosed.

I will pursue this matter further.

Elizabeth Hart

* While the letter is written in the ‘first person’, it is curious that no individual has signed the letter, the sign-off merely stating “Immunisation Branch Department of Health”, with no signature and no date.