Gifted girl’s death a case for immunisation.
Like many children, seven-year-old Laine Bradley dreamed of becoming a vet.
Empathetic, vivacious and enrolled in her school’s gifted program, it was a goal Laine’s mother Cecily Johnson was sure she would grow up to achieve.
But when Laine began to find it difficult to complete simple tasks and complained of ‘feeling dumb’, Ms Johnson knew something was seriously wrong.
“After being told again and again there was nothing wrong with her, one doctor finally asked me if she had ever had measles as a baby,” Ms Johnson said.
Laine was diagnosed with subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), a rare and fatal complication of measles which affects the brain and central nervous system.
Normally occurring within a decade of contracting measles, SSPE struck Laine seven years after she contracted the virus as a 10-month-old baby, six weeks shy of her scheduled measles vaccination.
“Within two weeks she was blind, she couldn’t walk and she couldn’t talk,” Ms Johnson said.
“One of the last things she said to me was, ‘I just want to see your face one more time, mum’ and that’s the hardest thing a mother can hear.”
The Johnson family is just one of thousands across Australia whose lives were irrevocably changed by a disease which could have been prevented by immunisation.
Queensland Immunologist Professor Ian Frazer, a co-creator of one of the world’s first cancer preventing vaccines (HPV vaccine), said immunisation saved lives.
“We’ve kind of forgotten how serious infections like mumps, measles and chicken pox are,” Prof. Frazer said.
“Measles is a serious disease that kills one in 1000 people and leaves five in 1000 with brain damage.
“One person infected with measles can infect 100 others, so if we immunise everybody then the virus isn’t able spread.
“But if there’s a lot of people unimmunised, as has happened in New York recently and also in parts of Australia, we can get measles spreading through the community because not enough people have been immunised.”
Laine died at age 12, five years after developing SSPE and more than 11 years after she originally contracted measles.
Ms Johnson struggled to come to terms with the fact Laine’s death was caused by a preventable disease.
“She was only six weeks away from her measles vaccination so, if I knew back then there was a measles outbreak, maybe I could have had her vaccinated earlier than scheduled,” she said.
“I was angry measles was in our area, I was angry she caught it, I was angry at whoever she caught it off.
“I was angry that maybe I could have had protection for her.”
Prof. Frazer said many members of the community, including babies, people with weakened immune systems and pregnant women, relied on high vaccination rates to stop the spread of disease.
“Some people can’t be protected by the vaccine but if you make sure enough people in the community are protected by vaccines then if an infection comes it can’t spread,” he said.
Despite the National Immunisation Program providing free vaccines for children and young people up to 20 years old, Prof. Frazer said Queensland’s overall vaccination rate was below the level needed to protect the community.
“We’re about the same as most of the states in Australia, which is not particularly good, but for some vaccines we’re getting up to 80 percent coverage,” he said.
“We like to keep our vaccination rate above 95 percent for the common childhood viruses because we know that’s the level we need to protect the community.”
Prof. Frazer encouraged all Queenslanders to stay up to date with vaccinations.
“We’re very lucky to have an immunisation program paid for by the government that’s designed to protect us against the viruses likely to cause us problems,” he said.
“All kids should go through the routine vaccination programs up to the age of five and then get the extra ones in their teenage years.
“They’re all important, they’re all safe, and they’re all known to work.”