One of the most common arguments brought forward by the anti-vaccination movement is, “If your vaccinations are so effective, why do you need herd immunity, aren’t you protected from the disease?”, So why is herd immunity so important?. Statistically, herd immunity is defined as when 95% or more of a population is vaccinated, why is this important? Herd immunity stops the spread of disease, due to high immunity levels within a population, herd immunity doesn’t have much of an impact on you if you are vaccinated, unfortunately the impact of the lack of herd immunity is seen on the vulnerable individuals within our society. Most often, children who are not yet able to vaccinate because the are too young. This brings us to a very sad case of death because of a lack of herd immunity, in a baby who was not yet old enough to receive his vaccination – Riley Hughes.
Riley Hughes was born on the 13th of February 2015 in Perth. This healthy and happy little boy started to display cold like symptoms and an occasional cough at the tender age of 3 weeks old, after being told he was fine by a locum doctor, his parents however knew something was not right. The next morning they took him to Princess Margaret Hospital, where his was admitted. The doctors suspected that he may have pertussis (whooping cough) and started the treatment process. On his fourth day of hospitalization, he was taken to PICU (Pediatric Intensive Care Unit) with pneumonia, with his swab tests having confirmed that he indeed had whooping cough. Despite the best efforts of the medical staff at PMH, Riley Hughes passed away in his parents arms, at just 32 days old.
His life had barely started, yet it had already come to a tragic end. There were many unfortunate factors that contributed to the death of this beautiful young boy. The first being that at the time when Catherine Hughes was pregnant with Riley, there was no booster program in place for the pertussis vaccine in Australia, programs which have seen a reduction in infant deaths by pertussis by more than 90% in the UK. The pertussis vaccine when given to pregnant mother in the third trimester, allows the transfer of precious antibodies against pertussis from the mother to the infant (before and after birth). A vaccine program that now, because of the efforts of the Hughes family have been implemented across Australia, with mothers now being given a free Pertussis booster vaccination in their third trimester of pregnancy.
The second factor that played a role in this tragic loss of life is the lack of herd immunity. This lack of herd immunity is not only caused by the anti-vaccination movement, but also the low rate of booster vaccinations. Many individuals believe that once they are vaccinated, they are protected against a disease for life, however this is not the case. Many vaccines, including pertussis, tetanus and hepatitis B require booster vaccinations periodically to maintain antibodies at a high enough level to allow immunity against the disease.
Thus vaccination is not only an individual responsibility, but a responsibility that is held towards the wider community. Our actions in whether we choose to vaccinate or not, not only impacts us but also those most vulnerable in your community.
We would like to thank Riley’s parents for allowing us to use his story to help raise awareness for the importance of vaccination in Australia. To find out more about Riley’s Story and the continuing work that his family is doing to reduce deaths due to vaccine preventable diseases at the Light for Riley Facebook page or at their website The Immunisation Foundation of Australia
If you would like to find out if you and your family are up to date with vaccinations please consult the National Immunisation Program Schedule