We write this letter broken hearted and feel like we failed our daughter.
Before 9 March 2009, we were happy and complete following the birth of our third child Dana. Today, we are shattered at the preventable death of our beautiful girl.
We moved to the Northern Rivers to bring our family up in this pristine environment. However, we did not realise this was a hotbed for contagious and potentially deadly viruses.
Our sweet Dana is the innocent victim of dangerously low levels of awareness and even lower vaccination rates. Instead of her photo winning baby competitions, she is the tragic face of a Whooping Cough (Pertussis) epidemic and sparked a national vaccination debate.
Our two other children are immunised. Dana never got the chance.
We did everything by the book while pregnant: checked Rubella immunity, took Folic Acid, avoided high-risk foods, and monitored glucose. Dana was born a perfectly healthy 7 pounds, 4 ounces. And her beauty took our breath away.
We breastfed, sterilised and followed SID guidelines. But, we were oblivious to Whooping Cough and the rate of notifications on the NSW North Coast. Yes, we saw some posters, but it beggars belief that not one health professional warned us about the risks, scale of the epidemic or precautions to take – not the GP, the obstetrician, the hospital midwives while the epidemic raged in the children’s ward, or the early childhood nurse.
What started as a blocked nose escalated into our worst nightmare. From 11 days old, Dana became more unsettled at night and started to cough from three weeks of age. After she tested positive for Pertussis, we went straight to the hospital.
However, we were not alarmed because we thought antibiotics could treat it. Wrong. The antibiotics only stop you infecting others. There is no treatment to cure Whooping Cough and we had to watch in horror as the Pertussis took its course.
First, our tiny daughter coughed uncontrollably until she turned blue and required oxygen to regain her breath. She was fed through a nasal-gastro tube, was given fluid via a drip and placed in an oxygen headbox. The paediatrician told us that when Dana could recover without oxygen we could go home, but she would continue having coughing attacks for up to 100 days and possible respiratory complications. However, this is for the ‘lucky ones’.
Dana developed Pneumonia on the third day. She was placed on a ventilator and airlifted to Brisbane’s Mater Children’s Paediatric Intensive Care Unit. We still did not panic, on the advice she would be there for a week until she was strong enough to breathe on her own.
On the fifth day, the Pertussis took an unexpected and deadly turn. In what seemed an instant, Dana had an aggressive reaction to the toxin, which attacked her immune system and heart. The Pertussis blocked every drug or treatment that the team of specialists could throw at it. We were powerless to save her. After nearly 10 hours of desperate blood transfusions, Dana’s beautiful heart stopped beating and she let out her last sweet breath.
The only thing that could have saved Dana was preventing her catching Pertussis.
We wrongly assumed our family was protected because we were all vaccinated at birth. However, we did not know that:
- The Northern Rivers region has one of the nation’s lowest childhood vaccination rates
- The vaccination wanes after 10-12 years, so almost 90% of adults are no longer immunised
- Vaccination is only effective if the majority of the community does it.
This means that if you are immunised, you can still contract Pertussis from the high number of people that don’t vaccinate or are no longer immune. Many people carrying Pertussis don’t realise it – they may have an irritating cough or no symptoms at all.
Newborns are helpless and it takes just one breath to infect them.
Dana contracted Pertussis in the first weeks of her life. No one else in our family has tested positive for Pertussis or had a cough. We have tortured ourselves with questions: Was it in the hospital? Was it from our son’s school or daughter’s childcare centre? Was it at the GPs? Was it at a birthday party? Or was it a loving relative or friend who doesn’t know they have the bacteria?
It doesn’t matter… we are all innocent victims in this.
We are devastated that Dana’s death is the catalyst for change and dearly wish we had the chance to wrap her in cotton wool as families across Australia are doing now.
Lismore Base Hospital has been admitting up to two children per week for Pertussis and Dana was the third newborn airlifted from this region to Brisbane in as many weeks. But, no one in our community knew.
The day after Dana died; NSW Health issued alerts and provided free boosters for new parents and grandparents. The Minister for Health then advised that public health officers were writing to all new parents to advise them of the free boosters and we also understand information packs have been produced. This is too little too late for us.
NSW Health should have proactively alerted the community of outbreaks and precautions to take before it became an epidemic. This requires more than just posters and media releases. We need advertising campaigns supported by vigilant screening, consistent advice from frontline health workers and free boosters for all adults.
However, the efforts of a few are futile. Everyone in our community must work together to increase vaccination rates to protect our most vulnerable.
Please learn from our past. Vaccination was introduced because there is no medicine to stop these bacteria that killed and maimed thousands of children. Now, these third-world diseases are on the rise again. In NSW it is Whooping Cough. In Queensland it is Measles.
Do you want to live in a country where we are too scared to have friends or family visit our babies or we won’t leave our homes?
For anyone that dismisses the facts, please walk in our shoes. We cry ourselves to sleep with memories of our daughter coughing until she couldn’t breathe, attached to a ventilator, going into cardiac arrest and holding her bruised and swollen body after her heart stopped.
We were inconsolable as we left our baby in the hospital morgue and drove home from Brisbane with an empty baby capsule. We weep as we explain to our children that their baby sister isn’t coming home and remember her trusting eyes pleading for help. Our hearts broke when our six-year old son helped carry her tiny pink coffin out of the church. And when our children ask why Dana died, we falter, because it was completely preventable.
We are comforted by the overwhelming support, prayers and acts of kindness we have received from across Australia and around the world.
People ask how they can help ease our pain. We simply ask that:
- All parents vaccinate their children
- All adults get a booster, which the government should make free for everyone
- If you have a cough, get tested for Pertussis to prevent the spread of the bacteria
- All levels of government and health workers improve processes to warn the community of outbreaks of any virus or disease and precautions to take.
We owe it to Dana.
Yours in Community
Toni and David McCaffery