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A pro-vaccination campaigner speaks out: "We are sad. We are tired. We have had enough."

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The NSW government has decided to cease providing a free whooping cough vaccination booster to new mothers.

 

By MAMAMIA TEAM

There is no cure for whooping cough. And statistics show that one in 200 babies who contract the disease will die from it.

Recently, the NSW government decided to cease providing a free whooping cough vaccination booster to new mothers. Instead, new mothers will now have to pay anywhere between $40 to $200 to receive their vaccination during pregnancy.

Over the past four years, the NSW government has provided over 1 million doses of the vaccination for free, during an intense campaign aimed at decreasing cases of whooping cough in the state.

From 2009-2011, NSW Health also provided the whooping vaccination boosters for free to other parents, grandparents and adults in close contact with infants – but this scheme ceased in July last year.

The combined campaign targeting new mothers in maternity units, and providing the vaccine for free to other adults, worked. In December 2008 – at the epidemic’s peak – almost 2000 individual cases of whooping cough were notified in NSW. In 2009 and 2011, numbers peaked again.

But in recent months, the numbers have fallen to 200 notifications per month. The NSW Government has decided that, since the epidemic appears to have passed, it is time to enter into a new phase.

Dr Vicky Sheppeard, NSW Health Director of Communicable Diseases, said, “We’re encouraged to see that the epidemic period has passed. Nevertheless there is no room for complacency and we want to ensure that expectant parents and their doctors are aware of the optimal protection for newborns from whooping cough.”

The new plan from the NSW Government is to encourage mothers-to-be to receive the vaccination before the baby is born, during their third trimester.

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NSW Health: “… it’s best to get vaccinated before conception, during the third trimester of pregnancy.”
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Dr Sheppeard said, “Research by NSW Health and the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance confirms it’s best to get vaccinated before conception, during the third trimester of pregnancy or failing that, at soon as possible after delivery.”

“A lot of parents don’t get vaccinated until a few weeks after birth which is too late to protect the most vulnerable very young babies.”

However, many vaccination advocates are not happy about the changes the NSW Health is making. There are still dangerously low pockets of vaccination rates across NSW – in some areas lower than Rwanda and other third world countries.

Their concerns are that a booster can cost anywhere between $40-200 (depending on whether the woman needs to visit her GP more than once) – and given that health professionals seemingly struggle to get their message across as it is, making the process for pregnant women to get vaccinated even more difficult seems like a bad idea.

Even if new mothers are still willing to get the whooping cough booster, it is likely to be harder to convince other adults in the child’s life to pay for the booster shot.

Toni McCaffery and her husband David became vaccination campaigners after their daughter Dana died after contracting whooping cough in 2009. Since then, they have also been subjected to the bullying tactics of the AVN.

Dana McCaffery
Dana McCaffery, who died of whooping cough aged 4 weeks.
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Toni told Mamamia that back then, “No-one had warned us how rife whooping cough was – not my obstetrician, the midwives, the child health nurse or the GP. No-one had told us that immunity wanes and that adults need a regular booster.”

As Toni sees it, NSW Health’s recent decision to cease free booster shots for new mothers is because they are encouraged by the fact that notifications are falling – but do not understand that if even one child dies from whooping cough, that is one child too many.

“This decision demonstrates to me that this is exactly how health departments view our babies … as dispensable statistics,” says Toni. “But they are not. Babies like Dana, Kailis and Malakai and so many more had their whole lives ahead of them. It has broken the hearts of parents, siblings, grandparents, other family and friends. You never get over it.”

Despite being disappointed by this recent setback, Toni keeps fighting.

“We are sad. We are tired. We have had enough. But, we keep going because we promised our daughter we would fix things, and I will not let them sweep all the deaths aside and then revert to the same problems that led to our babies dying.”

Toni supports maternal vaccination (pregnant women being vaccinated in their third trimester, as passing antibodies on to their newborn) and cocooning (other adults in the child’s life being vaccinated) – the combination that is being recommended by NSW Health – as this will protect a child until they are four-months-old. But she still wonders why governments are making it harder for women to access the vaccine – and worries without free booster shots, the statistics will rise again.

NSW Health told Toni that the free pertussis vaccine was part of an outbreak response, and they are now looking at more cost-effective measures to combat the level for risk. They stold Toni that, “Under the National Partnership Agreement on Essential Vaccines, NSW Health is not responsible for costs of routine vaccines – this is a Commonwealth responsibility.”

Ideally, the whooping cough vaccination will eventually be added to the National Immunisation Program. But this change could be many years off – and there are many babies who will be born in that time, and many families who could suffer the same heartbreak that Toni and David have.

Toni believes that if the free vaccination for new mothers is going to be scrapped, then the NSW government needs to be doing more to make booster shots for adults more accessible and affordable.

In the meantime, Toni would like to see other measures adopted to encourage adults to get booster shots for whooping cough.

“Governments have stalled on implementing many low-cost recommendations… Simple things like a checkbox on antenatal cards and on pre-admission forms are still not implemented. These are so important to prompt doctors and midwives to raise whooping cough with expectant parents.”

After the government announced their decision, the NSW Opposition said that, “While medical evidence suggests that mothers receiving the vaccine before birth is now best practice, the vaccine should still remain free to all new mothers to ensure no one misses out.”

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John Robertson
NSW Opposition Leader John Robertson

Opposition Leader John Robertson said, “Whooping cough still kills babies in NSW. There has been an epidemic of the disease for many years and providing free vaccines to mothers has been a crucial part of the strategy to preventing tragic childhood deaths. This decision will see some mothers miss out on receiving the whooping cough vaccination, because they either forget to organise it or simply cannot afford it.”

The other Australian states and territories currently have similar policies to NSW Health.

Queensland, Western Australia, and Victoria all recently ceased state-funded whooping cough vaccinations for new mothers or other carers, which were introduced as temporary measures to reduce spikes in notifications of the virus.

All states and territories support the national recommendations for whooping cough vaccinations; which is what women are encouraged to get the vaccination if they are planning to get pregnant, if already pregnant then during their third trimester, or as soon after the birth of their baby as possible.

A spokesperson for the Victorian Health Department told Mamamia that one of the most important things adults can do to help combat whooping cough, is be aware of their own vaccination status. Adults are encouraged to talk to their GP, and follow up on booster shots when needed.

It is advice that Toni echoes – the need for adults to be educated. Toni says, “I just want to stress to every expectant parent out there. Whooping cough will never go away. I think whooping cough needs to be part of any discussion when planning a pregnancy. ‘Are you taking your folic acid? Are you eating safe foods? Are you immune from rubella? Have you had an up-to-date whooping cough booster?’

“Information is everything. You cannot protect your child from something you don’t know about.”

If you would like to take action, you can demonstrate your commitment to vaccination – and encouraging other parents to commit to vaccinating their children – by signing Mamamia’s Vaccination Pledge.

Toni McCaffery has also started a petition on Change.org: Whooping Cough Booster: Make it Clear, Make it Easy, Make it Affordable. Please show your support by clicking here to sign. 

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