Vaccine row: grieving parents slam researcher

Baby Dana McCaffery.
Baby Dana McCaffery.

Grieving parents who lost a baby to whooping cough have lashed out at a University of Wollongong researcher who questioned their motives for going public with their story.

Judy Wilyman, a PhD student and former Illawarra high school teacher, questioned whether Toni and David McCaffery had been paid to promote the whooping cough vaccine.

The McCaffery family vigorously denies this claim. They said again on June 19 they have not received any payment from any government or lobby groups.

Mrs McCaffery said the family received an award in 2009, of which the prize was $1000 to be awarded to a charity of our choice. They chose the Children’s Hospital Westmead for pertussis research.

Ms Wilyman said the State Government was using four-week-old Dana's death and "the mantra of seeing sick babies gasping for air" to push the vaccine.

Dana died of whooping cough, or pertussis, in March 2009. Her parents have since worked with health authorities to raise awareness about the infection and gave permission for their story to be used on a NSW Health Department campaign.

On the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) website, Ms Wilyman said she was "concerned to know if the McCafferys have received any money either directly or indirectly for promoting this cause".

"Can you assure me that the McCafferys have not received any money from the skeptic groups or any other lobby group for vaccines?" she asked.

"It is the Government and the media who have been using the McCafferys to promote a vaccine that should be accountable for this case being discussed by the public. Please forward this comment to the McCafferys so they can ask the Government if it is ethical for them to be promoting a vaccine to the public."

Toni McCaffery hit back on the Facebook wall Stop the Australian Vaccination Network.

"Dana is not an anecdote. We do not receive money for warning people about whooping cough. That is the most disgusting allegation.

"The money we received [from] the Australian Skeptics we donated to research to save babies from pertussis. Government has not 'used us' to promote vaccines in recent media stories. We agree to such interviews in our own time without any agenda other than to give people the warning we did not receive."

Mrs McCaffery said Dana's story appeared in a government brochure because "parents have a right to be warned about whooping cough and given accurate information".

"We did not get that warning. It is up to parents if they want to vaccinate. It is also up to any parent to go public and speak to media. Do not use us against other families."

The Mercury contacted Ms Wilyman who has so far declined to comment.

In May, the AVN posted on its website a letter from Ms Wilyman to the Australian Human Rights Commissioner. It said recent government programs "have been promoting the whooping cough vaccine on anecdotal evidence (in particular Dana McCaffery's death) and the mantra of 'seeing sick babies gasping for air'."

She said while such cases were tragic, "the promotion of vaccines on anecdotal evidence is inappropriate".

AVN president Meryl Dorey said the McCafferys had chosen to go public and had to expect comments from both sides of the debate. "If one side has the right to say something and the other doesn't, then we are not a democratic society," she said.