The McCafferys want others to use their story about vaccination

In February this year, the McCafferys welcomed a daughter to their family. Shortly afterwards, she contracted whooping cough and died in agony. Whooping cough used to be very rare when nearly everybody followed the recommended vaccination schedule.

Five months on, what haunts the McCafferys is that they didn’t know they were living in a region with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

Since their daughter’s death they have discovered up to one in three children in their NSW north coast community are not vaccinated – three times less than the national average.

“I would never have ever considered asking someone if they’d vaccinated their child, it’s completely their business and I guess we’ve learnt the hard way that actually that choice does affect everybody around you,” Mr McCaffery said.

Dr Ingall treated Dana McCaffery in hospital and sees a clear link between the region’s low vaccination rate and her death.

“I mean, we’ve educated and educated … and educated, and it seems to have fallen on deaf ears. And part of me, in my mind was, well, Dana was an accident waiting to happen,” he said.


Their region is home to some fierce anti-vaccination advocates, who are still repeating falsehoods about vaccines causing autism (the original study was not only never replicated but has recently been revealed as having used corrupted data [more on Andrew Wakefield’s discredited study]). These falsehoods sit alongside their accurate information about some of the rare complications of vaccine administration – complications that occur at a much lower rate than the deaths and disabling outcomes from diseases once thought to be virtually eradicated until people stopped vaccinating their children due to scare campaigns.

For the McCafferys, they are left wondering why not one health professional warned them of the whooping cough epidemic.

As they await the outcome of a NSW Health Department investigation into their daughter’s death, they hope lessons learnt will save others.

“People need a personal story to be able to associate with and they’ve got a personal story. They’ve got ours. And we’re just asking the Government to use it,” Tony McCaffery said.

So, if you know someone who is considering not vaccinating their children, please tell them the McCafferys’ story. There was a brief time when my children were young that I was nervous about vaccination, and even delayed the schedule for a while due to my concerns, so I understand how the fears arise and how the stories of bad vaccination outcomes stoke those fears. When my son showed signs of autism I read and read everything I could find, wondering whether one of those injections had caused his cognitive variations. But the more I read, the more I realised that there was no foundation for the claims of an autism-vaccine connection, even before the revelations that Wakefield’s data was corrupted. My son’s autism is due to a familial history – his genetic inheritance – that is now my firm conviction.

As for the other possible complications of vaccination, they are potentially very horrible, but having a child die of whooping cough or measles is so very much more likely in an unvaccinated community. Risk management of health is tricky when you don’t have medical training yourself, but there’s a reason that vaccines for polio, measles, mumps, rubella and whooping cough were welcomed by nearly everybody when they first appeared – because nearly everybody had seen horrible, tragic deaths due to those diseases. If I had infant children now I would so definitely be ensuring that they had their vaccines on schedule.



Categories: health, medicine, Sociology

16 replies

  1. My community has something very close to 100% vaccination rate. Why? Because most of the population are farmers or work with farmers and we all get to see the positive effects of vaccination, year after year, on the cows. And even so, we had a short whooping cough outbreak among adults.

  2. I remember having momentary doubts when it was time to vaccinate my daughter. But I did it. I was convinced that it was better to take the risk (because at the time some thought there could be, but we know better now).

    I had a friend ask me if I thought there should be repercussions for people who cause the death of another child by refusing to vaccinate their own. I am still not sure how to answer him exactly, but I do know that deaths like this are preventable and horribly tragic.

  3. As the parent of a child with autism I have read extensively on this issue, initially out of concern and later out of frustration with the continued lies and misinformation.
    I vaccinate my children.
    ’nuff said really.

  4. Not sure if I’ve done the login thingy properly but here goes…
    Thanks for posting this. There are times when I want to get the anti-vaxxers and do unrepeatable things to them. In terms of basic epidemiology (and I’m sure that people here know this, but I’ll say it anyway because I support tigtog’s post), about half the childhood diseases are prevented by things like clean water, covered sewers and bathing daily. We know this because it’s possible to study infant mortality in ancient world cities that had these things and that happen to have been inadvertently preserved in aspic (eg, Pompeii); we can then compare their rates with rates in medieval cities that lacked covered sewers and clean water and kept records (eg, Edinburgh).
    The other half of the childhood diseases are prevented by (drumroll) vaccines. The upshot of that is that the Romans lost about 1/4 children to childhood diseases (before the age of 5) and about 1/200 women to death in childbirth. In the middle ages, you’re looking at between 1/3 or 1/2 children from childhood diseases (before the age of 5) and about 1/100 women to death in childbirth (the so called ‘natural’ maternal mortality rate).
    Even for the society with clean water and covered sewers, those figures are pretty terrifying. We seem to have engaged in a bout of collective amnesia when it comes to how terrible infant mortality really was in days gone by, and the extent to which vaccines have made the death of young children a rarity. I can still remember my grandparents (both born at the turn of the 20th century) talking about women having babies ‘and the baby died’ with a degree of fortitude I find amazing. Maybe we need a national exercise in remembering before that generation dies off completely to get people to get their kids vaccinated.
    Apologies for the long comment.

  5. Gods. This.
    I get hugely offended every time I hear an anti-vaccination advocate using Autism as a rallying point.
    Even were Autism caused by vaccinations, to suggest that protecting hir child alone from the vague possibility of Autism is more important that preventing an epidemic outbreak of a deadly disease that might wipe out not only hir own children, but all those who are resistant to vaccination… and then there’s the possibility of the disease mutating during an outbreak, and defeating the vaccine….
    For someone to tell me that that is a more desirable outcome than hir child getting Autism, zie is telling me that not only is zie a hugely selfish human being, but zie also think that I, as a person who is Autistic, am a broken human being who is better off dead.
    I truly feel for the McCaffreys, and hope for their sakes that their story inspires a little bit of self-reflection among their neighbors.

  6. I hope someone with access to government or NGO funding decides that enough is enough and conducts an education campaign in the NSW North coast. As Stephen Jay Gould so eloquently wrote, all you have to do is stroll through an old cemetery with graves from the nineteenth and early twentieth c’s to get the picture.

  7. Helen: Australian Skeptics — thanks to Dick Smith’s generosity — have taken out ads in national newspapers taking on the AVN. I don’t know if anything is being done on a local level, but details about the broader campaign are available on the Skeptics’ website.

  8. lilacsigil, it’s not entirely surprising that even in a well-vaccinated community you’d get an adult outbreak of whooping cough – the vaccine becomes less effective with time (and if memory serves, it’s not the most effective of the vaccines to start with) and they are now encouraging adults who have contact with kids to be revaccinated.
    But I have to disagree with magneticcrow’s conclusion that someone who doesn’t want their child vaccinated because of the perceived risk of autism thinks their child is “better off dead” than “broken” with autism.
    It’s a hell of a lot more complicated than that – and while I emphatically disagree with the contention that vaccines contribute in any way to autism, and can see logical flaws a mile wide in the “reasoning” of the people who choose not to get their children vaccinated – it’s not just about the child.
    It’s also about the parents. With particular reference to the mother.
    I certainly don’t think autistic people are broken – I have a niece and a nephew on the autistic spectrum and I love them both to bits. But on the basis that autism clearly runs in my family (it’s not just the kids, I think some of the adults are most likely on the spectrum too, just haven’t been diagnosed) I’ve chosen not to have children. A different – and I would argue more logical – response than not vaccinating, but with the same end – not having an autistic child.
    Because much as I don’t see them as broken, they are a hell of a lot of work, and if you have a severely autistic child, that work is never, ever going to end. And as a woman, you have an upwards of 80% chance that you’re going to end up doing that work on your own as a single parent. The choices you have suck completely – inadequate funding, inadequate respite care, inadequate everything. When you can no longer look after your child yourself, then you face even more sucky choices. Not to mention the worry of what happens to them when you’re no longer around to be their advocate.
    I score pretty highly on the adult autism test – and I certainly don’t think I’m broken (although I also think the test is skewed if you’re an introvert in the Myers-Briggs sense, which I also am); nor do I think my niece and my nephew or anyone else with autism is broken. But there’s a hell of a difference between high-functioning and severely autistic in terms of the burden on parents, and I do not want the rest of my life to be focused on caring for someone with severe autism – I have other things I want my life to be about – so I can totally, completely see where parents are coming from when they don’t want their children to be autistic, and although I think their decision is wrong, I also think reducing it to a binary “dead or autistic” is wrong, and backgrounds the exeperience of women who mother autistic children.

  9. Orac had a great post on an important study on herd immunity earlier this year.
    Well worth a look.

  10. As much as there are very real difficulties caring for a child with severe autism, choosing not to vaccinate against diseases which can kill your child and other children because the vaccination might make your child autistic seems fairly directly to me to be choosing risk of death over risk of autism.
    Choosing to have children or not with a weighted medical history is certainly very complicated. Choosing to protect your existing children against death based on possible autism is a lot less so.

  11. Oh boo, can’t edit on my phone. Wanted to add:
    That said, most anti-vaccers aren’t against it based on one single risk factor, so the mistake I feel there is an issue making it autism vs death, because there are plenty of other risks associated with vaccination.

  12. minna, I agree, and as I said, I also think choosing not to vaccinate is reprehensible, irresponsible, and quite frankly stupid.
    But my point was, I don’t think that binary is how those parents see it; nor is it (all logic and facts aside) a decision that is just about the child.
    When these anti-vaxxers are weighing up the risks in their heads, they are not doing it logically (clearly!) – they are not weighing actual facts and actual probabilities against each other accurately, or they wouldn’t be coming to the conclusion they’re coming to.
    I don’t believe they’re thinking their child is better off dead rather than autistic; they probably have never even heard of the child of any one they know dying of a preventable childhood illness, but they probably have seen the child with autism of someone they know. Emotionally, the risk of autism is going to seem like a bigger risk. That’s generally how humans behave when confronted with risk – we weight the ones we have experience of, or that are sensationalised in the media.
    The risk of their child dying of whooping cough, in their own minds, is infinitesimally small – they’re not weighing up dead child against autistic child, they’re weighing up “it won’t happen” against “what if I end up with a severely autistic child I have to care for forever?”
    It’s wrong, I’m certainly not saying it’s right, but I am saying that simplifying it into a dead child/”broken” child dichotomy isn’t helpful, because that’s not what’s going on.

  13. they’re weighing up “it won’t happen” against “what if I end up with a severely autistic child I have to care for forever?”
    Whup, yep, that makes sense. Sorry, I’m a bit sideways sometimes, haha.

  14. No, I’m not sure I explained it properly the first time – I was typing while rushing to go to lunch 🙂

  15. I watched the story about that dear little baby and her family on the 7:30 Report. I felt like crying, and I would have if my assault hadn’t broken my ability to cry when I need to. I was vaccinated, as were my siblings. I still got the measles and chicken pox, but man, you do not want to place dice with these sorts of illnesses.

  16. Good work giving the story further coverage, tigtog.

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