SYDNEY (Australia) — Parents who refuse to vaccinate their children can lose up to $11,000 of welfare benefits a year under a new government policy, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced on Sunday.

Under the new “no jab, no pay” policy, thousands of families could lose out on welfare payments, with the Australian government estimating more than 39,000 children under the age of seven have not been vaccinated because of their parents’ objections.

Currently Australian parents can choose to opt out of vaccinations for medical or religious reasons, or by stating they are “conscientious objectors,” and still receive taxpayer funded child care benefits.

Australia is set to cut thousands of dollars of welfare benefits for parents who don’t vaccinate their children, top officials said, ending a “conscientious objector” exemption to vaccination requirements starting from January 2016.

“The choice made by families not to immunize their children is not supported by public policy or medical research nor should such action be supported by taxpayers in the form of child care payments,” said Abbott in a joint statement with Social Services Minister, Scott Morrison.

Australian Prime minister Tony Abbott looks during a news conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, last month. Photo: Lukas Coch/EPA/Landov

Australian Prime minister Tony Abbott looks during a news conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, last month. Photo: Lukas Coch/EPA/Landov

“Parents who vaccinate their children should have confidence that they can take their children to childcare without the fear that their children will be at risk of contracting a serious or potentially life-threatening illness because of the conscientious objections of others,” Abbott said. “The Government is extremely concerned at the risk this poses to other young children and the broader community.”

The number of children in Australia who have not received immunization against measles and other diseases has almost doubled in the past decade, according to the government.

Anti-vaccination campaigns have recently gained traction in Western countries. Some parents believe the shots cause autism, but the theory has been widely discredited.

Existing exemptions on medical or religious grounds will continue said Abbott, but guidelines on religious exemptions will be tightened.

“It requires the formal position of that religious body being advised to the government and approved by the government. This is a very significant narrowing,” Morrison told reporters in Sydney on Sunday.

The move comes after a measles outbreak in the U.S. briefly reignited the debate over vaccinations, which persists in the U.S. despite scientific consensus that vaccinations are safe and that wide use is needed to establish the so-called “herd immunity” that protects entire populations.

A year ago, News.com.au, an Australian news website, noted the trend of parents raising “ethical” concerns against vaccinations, including more than 4,000 in the period 2012-2013 in Queensland province alone.