Earlier this year my friend and colleague Andrea survived whooping cough.
I say survived because there were times between when she first came down with what she believed to be a cold and her eventual diagnosis that she really thought she would die.
“I would be having coughing fits every half an hour and they were just so violent. My windpipe would close over and I would have to just heave to get the most minuscule bit of air into my lungs.
“I actually keyed triple-0 into my phone because there were times I thought, ‘I am just not going to come out of this one’.
“After being told I had bronchitis and then croup, I went back to my GP for the fourth time and told him I thought I had whooping cough and he pretty much laughed at me.”
He wasn’t laughing a week later when he had to call her back into the surgery urgently after her blood test results raised the red flag of a highly contagious disease that is notifiable by law. It was at the start of the latest epidemic of whooping cough or pertussis to grip Victoria.
Since 1990, Australia has become the “world capital of pertussis”, according to health experts, with the highest number of notifications per capita in the world.
According to the National Centre For Immunisation Research & Surveillance, adults account for half of notified cases each year and are a major source of infection, but least likely to be hospitalised.
Between 2006 and 2012, infants aged less than six months accounted for 42 per cent (1832 of 4408) of pertussis-related hospitalisations. During this period, 11 baby deaths were attributed to pertussis; half of the victims contracted the disease from an adult member of their extended family circle.
It’s too easy to blame the tiny, but vociferous, anti-vaxxer lobby. The truth is, it comes down to widespread lack of public understanding and the complacency of a generation that has grown up unblighted by the shadow of dreadful diseases such as polio and the horrifying prospect of life in an iron lung or congenital birth defects caused by rubella contracted in pregnancy.
Immunity provided by the whooping cough vaccine, which also contains diphtheria and tetanus protection and is the final jab received through school immunisation programs, diminishes over the years. It stops completely after 10 years.
By the age of 25, most people will be unwittingly walking around without cover unless they have been given a booster because they have become pregnant or have stepped on a nail or cut themselves on rusty tin.
One nurse I know thinks it’s time for government health authorities to confront the public with the truth. “If only they could see a baby unable to breathe on its own so they had a breathing tube, and every time the child coughed – even with the ventilator pushing air in the child’s lung – the child would still go blue.
“Then we’d have to disconnect them from the ventilator and bag them and so on through the night. It is absolutely horrific to see and worse when it’s so easily preventable.”