Immunisation: Grieving parents share their stories to save other little lives

Toni and Dave McCaffery

A new campaign to encourage immunisation shares the very sad experiences of parents who’ve lost their babies to whooping cough. It’s hoped that these stories might give parents who are reluctant to vaccinate themselves or their kids the important push they need.

Fight back with facts

The campaign called Get the Facts about Immunisation launched on Monday and will target parents via social media and childcare centres. 

The government has also launched a new website to help parents and parents-to-be find out more about the current immunisation schedule. It’s at if you’d like to make sure you’re up to date – or find out more. With anti-vaccination misinformation swirling about social media and beyond, it’s reassuring to see the government fighting back with facts.

“With social media and other channels, those who are critics have more of a voice,” Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt told the ABC. “That’s why we’re having this campaign, to say to parents, it’s safe, it’s vital and it will protect your child and it will protect other children.”

While national immunisation rates are officially at 93 percent, some areas dip down to as low as 60 percent and threaten herd immunity, Mr Hunt said.

“Some of the areas that have lower vaccination rates are the hinterland from the Gold Coast, parts of rural Tasmania, and in particular inner-city Adelaide. What happens is, you can have a message in a community that spreads and our job here to say that message is false, untrue, incorrect.”

Riley’s story

Parents Greg and Catherine Hughes participated in the campaign and are sharing their story in the hopes that it will help others. Their infant son Riley died from whooping cough in 2015 and Catherine and Greg have campaigned tirelessly for immunisation awareness ever since.

“He was just a joy to be around,” Greg said of his much-loved baby son.

When Riley fell ill, Catherine thought it was just a cold and that breastfeeding would protect Riley from any bugs. As his cough got worse, the worried parents took him to hospital and Riley was admitted straight away. Little did they know that a whooping cough diagnosis was to follow and their vulnerable little boy would ultimately pass away.

“I couldn’t fix him, I felt so helpless and at that moment worthless as a dad because I couldn’t make it right,” Greg said.

“We watched him die in front of our eyes, which is something no parent should have to experience,” Catherine remembers.

“If I had received information about the pregnancy booster for whooping cough, Riley would still be here,” Catherine said, explaining that whooping cough can kill because herd immunity has been compromised.


Dana’s story

Toni McCaffery and her husband Dave appear in the campaign videos too. Dave and Toni lost their beautiful one-month-old baby Dana to whooping cough in 2009, and were living in an area where immunisation rates were low. Nobody they knew had whooping cough, but low immunisation rates in their vicinity exposed their baby to the disease.

They hope that by sharing their story, others will realise how absolutely vital immunisation is.

“We were just blissfully ignorant that there was a dangerous disease around us,” Toni said, remembering her daughter became unsettled at 11 days of age. Things deteriorated terribly from there as their “perfect baby” began having coughing attacks, coughing uncontrollably every 2 to 5 minutes until she passed out and had to receive oxygen.

Dana quickly became so sick that she eventually went into cardiac arrest and passed away.

“Parents need to understand how dangerous these diseases are and it takes all of us to vaccinate so that we can protect each other,” Toni said. “While vaccination rates are 93 per cent, it’s not high enough, it needs to be 95 per cent to get herd immunity but there are many areas where vaccination rates are low and we can never be complacent.”

Toni urged parents to check the immunisation schedule and ensure that their family is up to date with all the immunisations on the list.

“Get the facts”

Chief Medical Officer for the Australian Government, Professor Brendan Murphy told the ABC anti-vaxxer scaremongering linking immunisation to autism was “completely false and has been debunked”. 

“Many young parents wouldn’t have been around when the scourge of polio had people in iron lungs, seeing the horrible complications from measles,” he said, urging parents to think critically and educate themselves, rather than avoiding immunisation.

“Parents need facts and that is what this campaign does. Get the facts. Immunisation is incredibly safe, and it does save lives.”

This new campaign hopes to deliver the facts – and tragic consequences of avoiding immunisation – in equal measure in this push to boost immunisation rates – and save lives.

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