A mother whose four-week-old baby died from whooping cough has spoken out about the importance of immunisation, as doctors warn a surge in cases is on the way.
Catherine Hughes’ son Riley died in 2015.
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She said her baby was happy and healthy until just three weeks after he was born when he was diagnosed with pertussis, more commonly known as whooping cough.
“It was very unexpected,” Hughes told 7NEWS.
“He had what we thought was a cold but it turned out to be whooping cough … and he passed away before he was old enough to have his own vaccine.”
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She said Riley’s death was extremely traumatic for her whole family, particularly for her daughter Olivia who had been excited at becoming a big sister.
“She was just three and she’d been so excited to have a little brother, and then he was snatched away in such a terrible, traumatic way,” she said.
Whooping cough is a contagious respiratory illness caused by a bacterial infection.
It can affect anyone however babies in particular have an increased risk of serious illness, hospitalisation and death.
Infectious diseases paediatrician Professor Robert Booy has warned it is only a matter of time before the next wave of whooping cough hits.
The last epidemic in Australia was in 2015 when more than 20,000 whooping cough cases were recorded.
Catherine Hughes’ son Riley died from whooping cough just four weeks after he was born. Credit: 7NEWS
Booy said there are normally four years between each wave but, because of COVID, it’s now been eight years since the last wave.
“It’s a real risk right now,” he said.
“It’s a sleeping bear, the bear has been asleep for twice as long as normal. It’s hungry (and) it really wants to get a lot of people infected.”
Booy said babies display “very classical” signs of the illness such as a hacking cough, a repetitive cough, taking sharp intakes of breath and vomiting.
Adults on the other hand usually just suffer from a cough, which makes it harder to distinguish from something less serious such as a cold.
“You don’t get the sharp intake of breath or the vomiting,” Booy said.
“But if … you’ve got a cough for two weeks, see your GP because they can give you an antibiotic.”
Riley with his big sister, Olivia. Credit: 7NEWS
Since her son’s death, Hughes has campaigned for immunisation awareness.
Vaccinating against whopping cough is the best way to prevent the illness and reduce its severity.
She launched the Light For Riley social media campaign and established The Immunisation Foundation of Australia.
“It’s a preventable disease, it’s just a simple needle,” Hughes said.
“If it was to happen to another family we would just be beyond devastated, so we want people to take these warnings seriously.
“We haven’t seen much whooping cough for such a long time, we really are due a resurgence and people need to get vaccinated.”
Since 2018, pregnant women between 20 and 32 weeks gestation can receive the whooping cough vaccine free.
Booy said the vaccine was very effective but only lasts a year or two, so it is recommended women be immunised every time they are pregnant.
“The (pregnant women) pass antibodies through the womb to the baby before it’s born so then in the first few weeks of life when whooping cough is most severe it can be prevented,” he said.
Health experts also advise anyone who will come into contact with newborn babies — especially grandparents who may not have been vaccinated for some time — to have a booster.
Other population groups eligible for a free vaccine include:
Infants at two, four and six months of ageChildren at 18 months and four years of ageAdolescents at 12 to 13 years of ageAdults younger than 20 years old who did not receive the vaccine as a child
Adults should also have a whooping cough booster every 10 years.
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