Nearly three years ago, Catherine Hughes’ son, Riley, died from pertussis at only 32 days old. Since Riley’s passing, Catherine has dedicated her life to improving vaccination rates for children and pregnant women in Australia. However, the grief of losing Riley still permeates her soul. After experiencing a jolt of sadness related to a response by anti-vaxxers regarding Australia’s, “No jab, No play,” policy, Catherine penned a heartbreaking and poignant message to anti-vax parents.
In 2015, Catherine’s son Riley contracted whooping cough. When Riley contracted the disease, he was less than a month old. Due to Riley’s age, he was too young to receive the vaccination for pertussis. Because of his fragile size and age, pertussis ravaged his body. He died after a brave fight with the disease due to fluid build-up in his lungs and organ failure.
The day after Riley’s death, Catherine and her husband went public with his story. Catherine learned during Riley’s illness that pregnant women should be given a shot to protect their baby from pertussis. However, Australia’s government was not implementing the policy nor were health care providers offering the vaccine to expectant mothers.
Catherine pleaded to the government to provide free vaccinations to pregnant mothers to prevent future deaths of infants. According to Catherine, the Australian government responded two days later promising to give the vaccines to all expectant mothers.
Within in days of Riley’s death, Catherine started a foundation, “Light for Riley,” to increase vaccination rates across the continent of Australia. Through her work, Catherine has helped decrease the rate of pertussis reported illness by 20%.
When I chatted with Catherine over a messenger app, she told me that starting the foundation allowed her to stay positive despite Riley’s passing. Catherine said she grieves his passing every day, but his death motivates her to prevent other families from experiencing the same loss.
Though much of her time is spent advocating and helping change policy in Australia, Catherine still has moments of grief that swallow her whole. When she watched the news the other day, she said a story about the “No Jab, No Play,” policy in Australia triggered her sadness.
The policy, “No Jab, No Play,” was rolled out by the Australian Federal Government in 2016. In the policy, parents are required to vaccinate their children before sending them to preschool and kindergarten. The only exemption given to parents is for children that cannot receive vaccines for medically approved reasons.
If parents refuse to vaccinate, Australian states can refuse to provide childcare vouchers to the families. Also, the schools can refuse to enroll the child. Three states in Australia have implemented their forms of “No Jab, No Play,” and the policy will soon be mandated in most of the Continent.
Naturally, anti-vaccine parents are all in a huff about the policy. Catherine said the story she watched focused exclusively on these parents complaining the policy was unjust and keeping their children out of school. Watching the anti-vaccine parents gripe about the policy made Catherine snap.
Catherine realized that if Riley were still alive, she would be preparing to send him to preschool in the coming fall. However, she was struck by the fact that she will never have the opportunity to send Riley to school.
After seeing parents willfully deny their children a vaccine that could prevent their death, Catherine said she got angry. She told me,
“At least they have a choice! At least they can choose to vaccinate and offer their child an early childhood education. Or not vaccinate, but educate their children in a home-setting. But Riley? He had no choice.
We lived in a suburb with some of Western Australia’s lowest vaccination rates. He was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and will never be afforded the opportunity to attend kindergarten. There’s no early childhood education for children who don’t survive their early childhood!”
At this point, Catherine said she could no longer bite her tongue. She logged into her Facebook Page, “Light for Riley,” and penned a heartfelt and frank message to parents that complain about the unfairness of the policy.
When she posted the response with a photo of Riley to her 111,000 followers, the response was immediate. Within hours, her post had been liked 4,700 times, shared nearly 2,000 times, and hundreds of comments. Individuals thanked her for her words, shared their own stories of contracting the disease, and offered words of hope.
Her post serves as a great reminder to those that choose not to vaccinate their children. There are millions of parents around the world that have lost a child to a preventable disease. These parents do not have the option to send their children to school.
Parents that willfully decline vaccines that save lives not only put their children at risk but they put vulnerable populations, like infants, at risk of contracting the diseases. Babies are too young to receive the pertussis vaccine, and they are susceptible to catching the virus.
Riley died because he was born in an area where parents refused to vaccinate their children. Because of the low immunization levels, whooping cough spread to newborn Riley and ended his life.
Infants and immunocompromised people rely on herd immunity to keep them safe from these diseases. Parents must consider who they might impact or potentially kill when they skip immunizations for their children.
Catherine said overall the “No Jab, No Play,” policy has been effective and well received by the broader community. However, she hopes the post will help anti-vaccine parents realize the consequences of their choices.
While Riley has lost his chance to attend pre-school, other children in Australia can go to school. All parents have to do is get their child vaccinated. The request is simple, effective, and will save lives.
Learn more about Catherine’s work here.
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