There has been some incredibly sad news this week.
Four week old Riley John Hughes from Perth, Australia, has died as a result of contracting whooping cough (pertussis).
I cannot fathom what Riley’s family have gone through over the past weeks, caring for their son as he was ill, then holding him as he passed away. The loss of a newborn is a tragedy I have no words for, especially to a cause that we as a society have the capacity to minimise risk for. As with other families who have lost a baby to whooping cough, my heart and all of my support are with the Hughes family, now and in the future.
The capacity that humans have to get through unimaginably awful circumstances is something which I am in awe of. In an unfathomable show of strength and caring, I have witnessed people who have undergone the most terrible losses make the decision to campaign publicly in the hope of affecting change.
Two such people, the parents of Dana McCaffery, who have campaigned extensively for the prevention of whooping cough since losing their beautiful four week old daughter in 2009, brought my attention to the profound importance of vaccination, and inspired me to join others in the fight to prevent the lives of children being placed at risk by this disease.
The parents of Riley John Hughes have also made the decision to go public with their tragic story, in the hope that Riley’s passing will promote public awareness of the danger of whooping cough.
From a post on the Light for Riley Facebook Page, set up by Riley’s family as a contact point with the public and media, Riley’s father Greg has written,
“We’re desperate to ensure the passing of our child has not been in vain and to try and assist other families who may be potentially suffering from similar circumstances,”
“Long term we’d ideally like to be the drivers of change within this country surrounding the treatment, management and long term eradication of this horrific disease.”
Riley’s family have also set up a fundraising page in conjunction with Princess Margaret Hospital, to honour their son’s memory and raise money to be used by PMH to help fight whooping cough, respiratory illness and other preventable diseases.
Following the news of Riley’s death, the NSW Minister for Health, Jillian Skinner, announced that free pertussis vaccines will be made available to pregnant women in their third trimester. Shortly after, WA Health Minister Kim Hames announced to in Parliament that a no cost pertussis vaccine program for pregnant women was being fast-tracked and will be available in two weeks’ time. This will bring New South Wales and Western Australia in line with Queensland and Victoria, who have already implemented free maternal vaccination for women in their third trimester – a strategy which provides both protection to the mother, so that the risk of her contracting whooping cough and passing it on to her newborn is greatly minimised, and protection to the newborn child through passive antibody transfer in-utero.
This is very welcome news, and I hope that the remaining Australian states and territories will follow suit (the Northern Territory offers free pertussis vaccines to parents and close family members of children under seven months old, but no maternal third trimester immunisation). Still, I believe that we need to do more to prevent the spread of whooping cough.
When my son Oscar was born in 2009, New South Wales provided free pertussis vaccines not only to parents of newborn children, but to family members who were likely to come into contact with the child during those most vulnerable few weeks. All of my son’s grandparents and his aunt took this opportunity to access the whooping cough vaccination, which provided us with protection known as the cocooning effect – surrounded by immunised people, he was less likely to be exposed to pertussis.
Sadly, this strategy was unable to completely reduce the risk of my children being exposed to whooping cough. My daughter Daphne arrived in 2011, meaning that both of my children were born during the 2009-2012 whooping cough outbreak, and I was concerned when my children were out in public – particularly as I live in an area with one of the lowest vaccination rates in Australia. Several local playgroups are attended by families who openly don’t vaccinate, and I wasn’t willing to risk my children being exposed to whooping cough; particularly before they turned six months old and had completed their course of three vaccinations (the acellular pertussis vaccine is given at two, four and six months of age, as per the Australian National Immunisation Program Schedule).
I wasn’t only concerned about unvaccinated children and low herd immunity in my local area though; many adults in Australia do not have immunity to whooping cough – be it through not knowing that pertussis vaccines are available, not being aware that adult immunity wanes after 5-10 years and that boosters are required, or not realising the potential outcomes of contracting pertussis… sustained serious illness and the risk of passing it on to others.
Indeed, Riley Hughes’ family members had been vaccinated against pertussis. This minimised his risk of exposure, but was not enough to protect him.
According to the 2009 Adult Vaccination Survey, carried out by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, only 11.5% of adults in Australia have received a pertussis booster.
The people at Tiny Hearts Paediatric First Aid have launched a petition to increase the availability of pertussis booster vaccination at low or no cost for all adults in Australia, and have suggested that people who are concerned about low adult pertussis vaccination rates contact their state health ministers – a call to action which I am firmly behind.
While I acknowledge the difficult job that those creating and implementing public health policy have, performing cost-benefit analysis to determine where limited public health money shall be spent, I strongly conclude that resources are urgently required to increase public awareness of the importance of adult pertussis boosters, and that they need to be accessible to all. Neither cost, nor lack of awareness should be barriers to preventing the unnecessary tragedy of infant death due to whooping cough.
As the importance of adult pertussis booster vaccines is not widely understood, nor are vaccines currently freely available, I would like to ask that you help spread the word – by sharing this post, the graphic above compiled by Northern Rivers Vaccination Supporters, or the videos below (the first a segment from The Project, the second an interview with Toni McCaffery on Today Tonight) which outline Riley’s story and the importance of pertussis boosters for adults.
Additionally, if you have not had a pertussis booster within the last five years and are able, I hope that you will consider speaking with your GP about a booster vaccination. Not only will it provide you with protection from a nasty illness which can persist for several months, with greater numbers of adults in our society immunised against whooping cough, transmission rates will fall. Please help minimise the risk of another baby being lost to this horrible disease.