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.
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.
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.