Doctor: My newborn son was exposed to whooping cough.

Hero, Shocker and Whinger. The sweaty edition.
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Hero, Shocker and Whinger. The sweaty...

It was late December in 2013 and my wife and I were sitting on her parent’s veranda in central Victoria when I received a phone call that almost sent me into a blind panic.

It was from my parents telling me that my dad had just been diagnosed with whooping cough. My mind immediately went back a few days to when my dad had spent the afternoon with my wife and six week old son, Tom. How many times had he held my son? Had Tom tried to suck his face, which was his party trick at the time?

I have a PhD in virology and have even written a scientific paper on vaccination. I have a good understanding of the risks associated with exposure to whooping cough in infants but that part of my brain just shut down. I admit that as a first time parent I was scared.

dave hawkes crop
Dave with his wife Amanda Wealands and their son Tom.

What was going through my mind were the deaths of young children caused by whooping cough. I have had discussions with people who had lost their children to vaccine preventable diseases and it was their stories that were playing on high rotation through my head.

We immediately headed back to Melbourne and booked into our GP who gave Tom his whooping cough vaccination and a course of preventative antibiotics. I don’t view myself as an overly sentimental person, and while I have no regrets about my decision, it somehow bothers me that the first thing my son ate or drank, apart from breast milk, was these antibiotics. I am very happy to say that Tom didn’t present with any symptoms and a year on is a happy, healthy, and very independent toddler.

So how was my son exposed to a vaccine preventable disease? My dad had done the right thing and had received the whooping vaccine less than two years earlier. We can never be sure whether the vaccine didn’t work or whether it only worked partially but my dad is over 70 and has had serious health issues for a number of years. He had recently been in hospital. where it is possible he was exposed to the pertussis bacteria that causes whooping cough. Due to his ill health and age, his immune system was probably not able to defend him even with the priming supplied by the vaccine and as a result he got sick.

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Dave and Tom.

Vaccination is unlike many other treatments because it doesn’t just affect the health of the individual taking it. We know that vaccines have changed the face of infectious disease both here in Australia and overseas but we also know that vaccination isn’t perfect. Generally vaccines are 80 – 98% effective depending on the individual vaccine and high community levels of vaccination protect those that can’t be vaccinated. This concept is known as herd immunity.

There has been a lot of discussion about a possible tour by US anti-vaccinationist Sherri Tenpenny and how her misinformation could reduce vaccination rates particular in vulnerable regions like the Northern Rivers of NSW. While it has been great to see overwhelming denunciation of her misinformed views vaccination rates in Australia are often still not high enough for herd immunity.

When parents choose not to vaccinate their children, or themselves, it reduces herd immunity and allows vaccine preventable diseases to get a foothold in our community. Once these diseases come back they can wreak havoc on our most vulnerable members – infants, the elderly, people with chronic health conditions, people undergoing treatment for cancer and others.

sherri tenpenny
Anti-vaccination camaigner Sherri Tenpenny.

 

I understand that people may be hesitant to vaccinate, after all its giving your child an injection when they are healthy, but I don’t think that is enough reason not to vaccinate. I have spoken at length to many parents who are vaccine hesitant and always begin the conversation with a simple question. “What are you worried about and what information would make you change your mind?” Overwhelmingly the answers are induced by fear and based on misinformation, often spread by people who have financial interests in promoting the anti-vaccine view like Sherri Tenpenny (it will cost an extra $100 to eat your dinner at her table – I wonder who gets that extra $900 each night?)

For more on why Sherri Tennpenny should not be allowed to visit Australia, click here.

By vaccination yourself and your children you can prevent diseases getting back into our community. There are also some extra bonuses to vaccination infants with current evidence showing that vaccination reduces the chance of SIDS.

If you have questions about vaccines there are a number of great websites that present excellent up to date information of the risks and benefits of each vaccine including Immunise Australia and the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance.

I know that most people, myself included, often get health advice from family and friends so here are a few simple hints to help you decide whether the information is likely to be reliable.

  1. If the source of information doesn’t give both the benefits and risks of vaccination then the chance is that it has a bias and is unlikely to be a good source of unbiased material
  1. If the person you are getting the advice form can’t give you a good answer to what will change their views on vaccination then they are trying to convince you of a belief rather giving good quality health advice

Tom is fully vaccinated for his age, and likes to throw avocado.

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