National Centre for Immunisation, Research and Surveillance (NCIRS), 20 Year Anniversary Showcase

  • November 3, 2017

Trent Zimmerman MP representing – The Hon Greg Hunt MP, Minister for Health
MacLaurin Hall, University of Sydney – 3 November 2017

Thank you Uncle Chicka Madden for that very warm welcome to country on behalf of your people, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation.

Thanks also to the NCIRS staff and board for hosting this 20 year celebration, and for having me here to represent the Minister for Health, Greg Hunt.

I would like to particularly mention Professor Peter McIntyre, who I understand will be leaving NCIRS in December.

Prof McIntyre has been at NCIRS since it began, and its Director since 2004.

He has made a great contribution to the evolution of NCIRS, to vaccination policy in this country and even to global vaccination programs, through his work with the World Health Organization.

He will be missed by everyone involved in this very important area of preventive medicine.

It’s well known that the Turnbull Government is a very strong and firm supporter of immunisation.

It is a safe and effective way of providing protection against a range of diseases.

The Government is the major partner in the National Immunisation Program – a collaboration between the Australian, state and territory governments which now provides 17 vaccines, free to the target populations.

This financial year, the Australian Government will provide up to $460 million for vaccines and related activities through the NIP.

NCIRS has been and remains a vital contributor to the development of the policy and planning for the NIP and other vaccination programs.

It was established by the Australian Department of Health in 1997, as part of the Howard Government’s “Immunise Australia” Seven Point Plan.

The then-health Minister was Dr Michael Wooldridge, and when he introduced the Seven Point Plan to Parliament he made a passionate speech in support of universal immunisation.

Early history of vaccination

Dr Wooldridge noted that the first article on a medical matter ever published in Australia was published in the Sydney Gazette on 14 October, 1804.

Written by the Principal Surgeon of the colony, Dr Jamieson, it was about vaccination against smallpox.

At that time, vaccination was only available for smallpox – the term “vaccine” was in fact derived from variolae vaccinae, the scientific name for cowpox, or smallpox of the cow.

The use of bacteria from smallpox to stimulate immunity in healthy people had been used at least from the mid 16th century in China, Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, and Persia and was also used by some in Europe.

But it was not established in modern medicine until 1796 when British doctor and scientist Edward Jenner conducted an experiment which showed that a person exposed to cowpox was immune to smallpox.[1]

The speed with which Jenner’s “vaccine” was taken up here, on the other side of the world, is really amazing.

Communication was limited to pen and ink, carried over the ocean waves – no planes, no radio waves, no internet.

Yet doctors in the colony began using the vaccine only five years after Jenner declared that it provided safety against smallpox – a highly infectious disease with a death rate of around 30 per cent.

There were some dangers in early vaccination practices. But people seized the chance to protect themselves and their children from the Russian roulette of getting smallpox.

The work of NCIRS

Getting back to 1997. When Dr Wooldridge introduced the Immunise Australia Program, he lamented that Australians had forgotten how bad diseases that could be avoided by vaccination, really were.

His Seven Point Plan identified the need for a national centre – to provide research on immunisation, monitor vaccine preventable diseases, and provide independent, technical advice to government.

The result was this, the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance.

NCIRS quickly became the accepted national centre of expertise in its field.

It works with a strong collaborative network which gathers in other skills and expertise, including:

  • the NSW Ministry of Health;
  • the University of Sydney School of Public Health;
  • the University of Sydney Medical School (Discipline of Paediatrics and Child Health); and
  • other researchers nationally and internationally.

This network was particularly important in establishing the new national surveillance system for monitoring adverse events following immunisation.


Monitoring of adverse effects is essential to improve the overall quality of vaccine safety in Australia, and to ensure confidence in the NIP.

The AusVaxSafety National Surveillance System, launched 12 months ago,[2] is a collaborative initiative led by NCIRS and funded by the Department of Health.

NCIRS can be very proud of this “baby”.  It is a world leading system, providing national monitoring, detecting and real time feedback on adverse immunisation events.

AusVaxSafety currently focusses on seasonal influenza vaccines and pertussis vaccines for particular cohorts, as well as zoster vaccine in older people; but will soon begin to report on adverse effects from all NIP vaccines.

NCIRS also undertakes immunisation research, including social research, to support immunisation policies including education campaigns.

The Childhood Immunisation Education Campaign

It is vital that Australians understand the continuing importance of vaccination to keep serious diseases at bay.

The Government has recently begun a new three year, $5.5 million education campaign, “Get the facts about immunisation”, aimed at expectant parents and those with children under 5.

Our goal is 95 per cent childhood immunisation coverage through the NIP – to protect not only individuals but also the community.

At present we have average national coverage of 93 per cent – but it is much lower in some areas.

We know parents need evidence based information to support decision making about childhood vaccinations.

No Jab, No Pay / No Jab, No Play

But we’ve also increased our “push” to parents to get informed and act.

Using government payments to give incentives for vaccination was another of the Howard Government’s initiatives back in 1997.

Since January last year, family payments for children up to 19 years have vaccination requirements. Conscientious objection was also removed as a valid exemption category.

When No Jab, No Pay was first implemented, catch up vaccines were funded on an ongoing basis for all children up to 10 years of age and for a time-limited period for 10 to 19 year olds who were eligible to receive family payments.

However, the 2017 Budget included $14.1 million over four years to enable ongoing catch-up vaccines for all young people up to 19 years, as well as refugees and humanitarian entrants of any age.

We are also keen to extend this vaccination “push”.

The Prime Minister has called on all states to implement a No Jab, No Play policy, which would exclude unvaccinated children from childcare and preschool unless they had a valid medical exemption.

Work is in train through Ministerial Councils on options to implement this.


I have no doubt that the research done by NCIRS will be of great assistance as we progress this latest proposed step in our vaccination policies.

NCIRS was set up to provide expert advice and support for national vaccination programs.

It has done this with great distinction for 20 years and its work is as needed and as appreciated now as ever.

On behalf of the Minister and of the Government as a whole, thank you and congratulations to everyone at NCIRS.