WHOOPING COUGH

I draw to the attention of the Parliament that the Hunter is currently experiencing a whooping cough outbreak. Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a respiratory infection caused by bacteria and is transmitted by an infected person who sneezes, coughs or even just talks to another person. This is why it spreads so quickly among family members or schoolchildren. Cases of whooping cough in the Hunter New England Health area rose by almost 190 per cent from 2014 to 2015, and early figures from this year suggest those numbers will only continue to increase. Already this year 271 cases of whooping cough have been identified in the region, compared to 112 cases in the same time last year and 50 at the start of March 2014.

Whooping cough initially presents like a common cold with the usual blocked nose, tiredness, mild fever and cough, so initially it does not raise any alarm. However, the cough gets worse and severe bouts of uncontrollable coughing develop. For adults it is a debilitating and unrelenting disease—it is sometimes referred to as the 100-day cough because it can last for that long. People who have it cough continuously for days, and they do not just cough; as the name suggests they whoop and they are forced to double over, body clenched, and gulp as they struggle for air. For newborns, who are most vulnerable to the disease, whooping cough symptoms can be serious and life-threatening. Complications of whooping cough in babies include pneumonia, fits and brain damage from prolonged lack of oxygen. Most hospitalisations and deaths occur in babies less than six months of age.

In Australia, whooping cough is largely under control thanks to a longstanding vaccination program. The vaccine, however, provides less than total immunity to the infection, leading to regular spikes of whooping cough, as we are currently experiencing in the Hunter. That is why a booster vaccine is needed. But in the middle of the worst whooping cough outbreak in five years, the Hunter is facing a shortage of the booster vaccine. The whooping cough booster vaccine has been in short supply off and on since March last year and the increase in demand has continued to exceed supply capacity, causing intermittent stock outs. This shortage has lead doctors to prescribe desperate patients with an alternative vaccine, which is double the price and also contains the vaccine for polio. However, the stock of that vaccine is also now exhausted.

The shortage is the result of an unprecedented number of requests. Demand has risen partly due to the positive awareness campaign across Australia of the need to vaccinate against the disease, which had a fantastic result. But while an increase in awareness campaigns of whooping cough is commendable, if they do not coincide with a sufficient supply of the vaccine to prevent it, they are pointless and flawed campaigns. Scott-Dibben Chemist, a chemist in the suburb of Kotara in my electorate, reported that on Monday 29 February it received a shipment of the vaccine that it had been waiting for since September last year. That shipment contained 20 doses of the vaccine and that supply was exhausted in three days. Obviously this is a real problem for people who want the vaccine. The booster vaccine is particularly recommended for people who come into close contact with newborn children.

The shortage has meant that family members who are desperate to meet new additions to their family are often stopped from doing so because the new mums and dads want their babies to be safe. This disease does not discriminate. A confronting video that has been circulating on social media is of one of the Hunter's own heroes, runner and physio Dave Robertson. He and his wife, Gabby's, 10-month old daughter, Emma, tested positive for whooping cough a few weeks ago, despite the family being fully immunised. In the video Emma is shown choking, turns blue and vomiting during coughing fits. It is confronting to watch and it is hard to imagine how helpless new parents like Dave and Gabby would feel seeing their baby in such distress. Vaccination is the single best way to prevent whooping cough. I call on the New South Wales Government and in particular the Minister for Health to take swift action to ensure that there is a constant supply of the booster vaccine now and into the future.