Mother Who Lost Son to Pertussis Pens Biting Message to Anti-Vaxxers

Mother Who Lost Son to Pertussis Pens Biting Message to Anti-Vaxxers December 19, 2018

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.

Photo provided by Catherine

Learn more about Catherine’s work here.


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • persephone

    My kids are adults now, but I’m so glad that my state, California, passed a law seriously limiting unvaccinated children from attending public schools. If these crazies want to skip vaccinating their kids, fine, they can pay for the privilege by putting their kids in private schools. Private schools in California have had several outbreaks of pertussis, as well as some measles outbreaks.

  • Jim Jones

    Largest measles outbreak in 30 years ends in Fraser Valley | CBC News

    Health officials announce end of historic outbreak after 400 cases

    The largest outbreak of measles in decades was officially declared over Monday with a vast reduction in the number of transmissions and new cases, says Fraser Health’s chief medical health officer.

    Over a four-week period earlier this spring, the Fraser Health region had over 400 cases of measles with some patients requiring hospitalization.

    Dr. Paul Van Buynder, the chief medical health officer, says the outbreak is now over with few new cases being reported.

    “The size of, and speed at, which this outbreak spread resulted in more cases of measles than the province has seen in the past 15 years, and was the largest outbreak in almost 30 years,” says Dr. Van Buynder.

    The outbreak initially began after dozens of cases were reported at a Christian School in Chilliwack with a low vaccination rate. That school was temporarily closed.

    Health authorities say the low vaccination rates within that small population led to the measles spreading to the broader population.

    Officials are urging residents to keep up with immunization and vaccinations to protect themselves against preventable illnesses.

  • we need more states to do what California has done.

  • Some guy

    It’s bad enough that these people put their own kids at risk, but to endanger everyone else’s kids while they’re at it? (It’s called “public health” for a reason!)

    Big props to Catherine et al.

  • otrame

    Not vaccinating your kids is child abuse. Period. The only exception is if the child has some legitimate medical reason, usually some kind of immune compromised situation. Those kids especially need everyone else to vaccinate.

    A friend had a baby who contracted pertussis at 3 months. He was in the hospital for three months, nearly died several times and has permanently scarred lungs. My friend’s hatred of non-vaccinators was epic.

  • B.A.

    I’m a big fan of Idina Menzel and I read a book written by her younger sister about their childhood. The sister,Cara,contracted pertussis as a newborn and fortunately survived. I feel so terrible for Catherine and her beautiful baby boy and agree 100% with her post. I got a booster shot a few years ago,and I’m glad I did since I’m now a great-aunt.

  • My son contracted pertussis at 15 months – my anti-vax hate runs strong.

  • *raises bong*

    To Riley. May his memory live on forever, and may he haunt every antivaxxer.

  • Courtney Smith

    Any adult on this thread who is not up to date on their vaccines per the 2018 CDC adult schedule and complains about anti vaxxers is a hypocrite.

  • What if they can’t get the jabs for medical reasons?

    Also, thanks for reminding me — next time I see my doctor, I’m gonna check to see if I’m up to date.

  • Courtney Smith

    You should already know if you’re up to date. Also, there is absolutely no way to pinpoint pertussis to an unvaccinated person. The pertussis vaccine makes you an asymptomatic carrier so a vaccinated person would be carrying the disease and not even know it.

  • Oh, well pardon me for not knowing off the top of my head! As far as I know, I’m up to date. Should I find out I’m not, in fact, up to date, I will fix that immediately.

    And LOL no, the pertussis vaccine doesn’t work that way. “Viral shedding” is antivaxxer BS.

  • Courtney Smith

    Okaaaaay. Whatever. How do you not know when you were vaccinated last?

  • Courtney Smith
  • Because the human brain does not work like a computer hard drive or file system, you can’t sort through your files and go, “oh, updated this on this date”. Beyond that, it’s in my medical record anyway. Why would I need to memorize all the vaccines and the dates I got them?

  • Bex Badger Hallihan

    My niece has Cystic Fibrosis. Even at the age of 11 something like pertussis could easily kill her – and her compromised immune system means she can’t always have vaccines. People who refuse to vaccinate their kids because of FEELINGS are basically murderers. And speaking as a neuro-atypical person myself there are worse things that can happen to a person than “catching autism from a vaccine” (hint: you can’t)

  • Courtney Smith

    I’m not saying that, Kitty- calm down lol. I’m just saying if you had them in the last few years you would know. Do I remember the date? No, but my last set of vaccines was over 25 years ago. That I do know. That’s all. Geez.

  • My memory isn’t all that great, k?

  • Courtney Smith


  • Courtney Smith

    “I regret that my coauthors and I omitted statistically significant information in our 2004 article published in the journal Pediatrics. The omitted data suggested that African American males who received the MMR vaccine before age 36 months were at increased risk for autism. Decisions were made regarding which findings to report after the data were collected, and I believe that the final study protocol was not followed.”

    William Thompson Senior Scientist at the CDC

  • Anat

    And suppose that’s true (what is your actual source?), better a live kid with autism than a kid dead from vaccine-preventable illness.

  • Anat

    Well, people who keep getting vaccines don’t remember when they last got each one of them. But I see my physician regularly and I trust her to keep me up to date. I did get a couple of extra vaccines before traveling to China recently. Additionally I get the flu shot every year and boosters for everything my physician recommends.

  • Courtney Smith

    Really? So you would rather have an autistic child who needs some sort of daily care for the rest of their lives rather than a rash that lasts for a week possibly coupled with a fever? Most children with autism are not high functioning and those that are have sensory issues, learning and speech issues, etc. some are in diapers as adults some need professional care. Please look up autism. That is the argument of someone who truly does not know what they’re talking about and is just regurgitating something passed around on fb rather than doing actual research. Please don’t ever say that to A: a mother with an autistic child or B: a mother with a vaccine injured child. Preventable does not equal fatal. And don’t get me wrong- I am no expert in autism, but I have friends who are mothers to children with autism and their daily struggle is heartbreaking. You have to decide what is best for you and your family. If you want to risk vaccine injury and death then go for it. That’s your choice and my choice is mine.

  • Courtney Smith

    Good for you!

  • Anat

    Our host here does have a child with autism, in case you haven’t noticed. And she is pro-vaccine. As it happens my son has a diagnosis of ASD. He is currently a junior in college having exited from special education in 9th grade.

    And you are comparing the worst case scenario for ASD with the mildest case scenario for measles. People can *die* from measles because it can get to the lungs or the brain. Ask people who were around before vaccines how seriously cases of measles were treated. When my mother had it her father and brother were not allowed in the house to prevent contagion. The only way to prevent those deaths is to make sure a very high proportion of the population is fully vaccinated against it.

    Edited to add: I looked up your quote and in response I quote the following:

    Access to the information on the birth certificates allowed researchers to assess more complete information on race as well as other important characteristics, including possible risk factors for autism such as the child’s birth weight, mother’s age, and education. This information was not available for the children without birth certificates; hence CDC study did not present data by race on black, white, or other race children from the whole study sample. It presented the results on black and white/other race children from the group with birth certificates.

    The study looked at different age groups: children vaccinated by 18 months, 24 months, and 36 months. The findings revealed that vaccination between 24 and 36 months was slightly more common among children with autism, and that association was strongest among children 3-5 years of age. The authors reported this finding was most likely a result of immunization requirements for preschool special education program attendance in children with autism.

    IOW the likely situation is the reverse: In the case of these children it wasn’t vaccination that caused autism, but a diagnosis of autism resulted them being placed in a program that required vaccination. Source:

  • shay simmons

    “I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives. I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race. Vaccines prevent serious diseases, and the risks associated with their administration are vastly outweighed by their individual and societal benefits.” Also William Thompson, CDC.

  • WallofSleep

    You still didn’t answer Anat’s question “what is your actual source?” Links?

  • WallofSleep

    “Four deaths from measles in the US in 18 years…”

    And you still don’t understand why? God damn you’re fucking stupid. Comrade.

  • WallofSleep

    Nope. You’re just a damn fool. Or you think we are.

  • shay simmons

    “Four deaths from measles in the US in 18 years”

    Not quite. From Vaxopedia:

    “2000 – 86 cases – 1 measles death (infant) – endemic spread of measles eliminated in U.S.
    2001 – 116 cases – 1 measles death
    2002 – 44 cases
    2003 – 55 cases – 1 measles death (1 year old)
    2004 – 37 cases – record low number of measles cases
    2005 – 66 cases – 1 measles death (1 year old)
    2006 – 55 cases
    2007 – 43 cases
    2008 – 140 cases
    2009 – 71 cases – 2 measles deaths
    2010 – 63 cases – 2 measles deaths
    2011 – 220 cases
    2012 – 55 cases – 2 measles deaths
    2013 – 187 cases (large outbreak in New York City – 58 cases)
    2014 – 667 cases (the worst year for measles since 1994, including the largest single outbreak since the endemic spread of measles was eliminated – 377 cases in Ohio)
    2015 – 188 cases – got off to a strong start with a big outbreak in California – 1 measles death
    2016 – 86 cases
    2017 – 118 cases
    So that’s 11 measles deaths since 2000 and at least 8 measles deaths since 2005.”

  • shay simmons

    ” Second of all: more people have died from the MMR than the measles in the last 18 years.”

    Please post the evidence of medically verified deaths from the MMR. EDITED TO ADD: In the US, since that’s where the 11 measles deaths occurred. If we expand the total to the rest of the world, it’s several times more.

  • shay simmons

    And Smith doesn’t even take SSPE deaths into consideration.

  • Well that’s gonna get you the ban hammer

  • WallofSleep

    “First of all: fuck you.”

    You wish, moron. I have an IQ threshold for what I will put my penis into, and you fall well below the approval line, simpleton.

    Also, you’re supposed to make a hat out of the tinfoil, not eat it.

  • WallofSleep

    This is a few months old, but worth a scan if you haven’t read it yet:

    Russian Trolls Used Vaccine Debate to Sow Discord, Study Finds

    Just something to keep in mind when “hot button” topics come up.

  • Mike Stevens

    Who was “guest”, may I ask?

  • shay simmons

    A charming individual named Courtney Smith who, as you can see, trotted out trope after trope, was shot down on all of them, and told us all to engage in sex acts and depart.

    S/he got banned.

  • persephone

    When my kids were still in school, the state ordered that all students had to get up to date DPT vaccinations. My doctor’s office ran out, but we were able to get them at Walgreens.

  • I banned her for being an idiot

  • shay simmons

    That, too!