Anna's story

Pertussis-whooping cough

Anna’s mother Wendy describes the experience of having a very small baby ill with whooping cough. Her story consists of excerpts from an interview held at her home in June 2002 when baby Anna was a very noisy and busy 13 month old.

“At about 6 weeks of age Anna started with a horrible choking kind of cough. I just knew as a parent that something was wrong and yet she looked so healthy. She didn’t have a temperature and she didn’t look sick. She was happy, she was smiling. She had all the signs of a well child and yet every time she coughed there was just this horrible choking cough and I just knew something was wrong.

In all fairness to the doctor it would have been hard for him going on what we were saying, but he just didn’t seem to take seriously what we were saying and that was the difficulty that here we were at home seeing a child that was by the day getting worse and worse and more and more distressed and yet when we took her to the doctor they couldn’t seem to find anything wrong.

Well this was the first two weeks. At this stage she was just waking up in the night all the time. It could be half an hour and then five minutes later and then an hour later and every time she was going red in the face and just choking and choking and choking and it was very distressing for her and it was distressing for us watching it. There was nothing we could do except sit her up and pat her back. You know, make sure she wasn’t choking on the saliva that was coming up with all the choking. Then she was so exhausted after that she would just cry for a little while and in the exhaustion just fall straight back to sleep from all the effort of what she had just gone through.

By this stage she was only about 8 weeks old, she was beginning to not feed and look unwell and with breastfeeding it becomes more significant when she is not feeding and losing weight. My Plunket nurse was there one day when she coughed and when I say she coughed, she choked and choked and choked and my Plunket nurse just picked up the phone, and phoned my GP and said this child needs to be in hospital.

So after two or three weeks of not sleeping and not having anybody to be able to tell you what was wrong, it was just a relief that all of a sudden you are being taken seriously. From then, being in hospital that was really helpful. They put her on a monitor overnight to see how she was coping and how she was breathing, which means I could relax a little bit, because I knew that if she stopped breathing an alarm would go off, and we stayed there for four days.

I look back and realise that I had a lot in my favour. I have got a lovely caring supportive husband. He used to do half the night shifts with me. I would do four hours and then go off into another room and he would do four hours, and I think without that I don’t know how we would have got through, because not only are you up and on call all the time, the issue is that all the time you are watching a little child become very, very stressed and there is not a lot you can do except just be there and cuddle them and watch them go through it, and so from that point of view what little sleep you do have, you are pretty rung out.

So I must admit the whole episode was extremely stressful. It did get better, but it didn’t really finally stop until about three months afterwards.

What happened, Anna actually got the first signs of the coughing seven days after Anna’s immunisation, which included her immunisation for whooping cough. So looking back a week or two into it, in the early days when we were beginning to wonder whether she did have whooping cough, we thought oh no the immunisation has given it to her, because it takes seven days for it to incubate and that was exactly the time she started coughing. So our immediate reaction was the immunisation had given it to her, but it actually isn’t the case. It’s impossible to get whooping cough from the vaccination.

Possibly she may have picked it up in the doctor’s surgery by another child. Because she was so little I didn’t go out a lot with her, so I wasn’t running off to the supermarket and taking her into the kind of places with lots of other people and the fact that it was exactly seven days after I had been to the doctor’s surgery, the most likely place possibly was that she picked it up there. That’s the only thing I can think. People could come away thinking that immunisations actually can give you these things, but quite clearly that isn’t the case.

My husband and I, we have decided to immunise. My husband is a scientist, it’s his job, and I guess we look at the reality that yes there are people who do have reactions to immunisations and there are the rare cases perhaps when a child even dies, which is pretty horrendous. But just what we understand, that the statistics are that the risks for immunising are much lower than for not and so we would take the stand, we realise there is risk both ways, but just looking on the cold hard evidence as we understand it, we would definitely recommend immunisation just on the basis that the risks of not immunisation and getting some of those illnesses around are pretty horrendous and are life threatening and we think that in our minds it’s quite clear that we would re-immunise ourselves so we would encourage others to immunise. We realise it’s a personal choice and each person has to decide for themselves but our understanding is that the risks — there are risks but those risks are lower, much lower than not immunising.”

This story includes excerpts from a recorded interview and is posted with written consent for the story to be published on IMAC's website. The interviewer was Elaine Ellis-Pegler.