When Paula Sullivan’s son Tom* was a baby, she and the people she socialised with didn’t place a high value on immunisation.
‘It just wasn’t the cool thing to do. Some people thought it was better for babies to get illnesses and build up their immunity that way. We read up on it and thought we’d do it later but just got caught up in life and never did,’ Paula says.
Sixteen years later in 2009, Tom, a top athlete, caught pandemic H1N1 influenza and then measles during an outbreak among his classmates at Christchurch Boys’ High School.
‘He was just about to go to New Caledonia on a French exchange when he got the flu,’ Paula says. ‘He had this terrible cough and then developed a rash. My husband and I looked up the rash on the internet and realised he had measles.’
Paula and Chris Sullivan quickly arranged for Tom to see their GP. Tom had a blood test and it was later confirmed he had measles. They also contacted a local medical officer of health because they knew people Tom had been in contact with would need to be warned.
Tom’s brother William (9) and sister Emma (18), who were also unimmunised, were given emergency immunoglobulin to prevent them from getting sick and they were not allowed to attend school or university for two weeks to avoid the possibility of them spreading measles.
Meanwhile, Tom’s condition continued to deteriorate. His fever became hard to control, ‘his pulse rate was enormous’, he was vomiting regularly and was in pain, Paula says.
‘My big 16-year-old asked if I could sleep on the couch in his room because he just felt so bad. That night was very frightening. We just couldn’t keep his fever down and he was moaning in his sleep.’
After a second night of no sleep and Tom’s fever still high, Paula took him to Christchurch’s 24-hour after hours surgery to see if they could help him. He spent the day at the surgery receiving intravenous fluids and by about 6 pm had recovered enough to go home.
‘One of the few things he said to me in those days was that we had to sponsor a child to help them get immunised because he didn’t think anyone should have to go through this,’ Paula says.
It was four days before Tom’s condition began to improve and it took another two weeks before he could get back to school. Pandemic H1N1 influenza and the measles had, however, taken a toll on his fitness, he had an ongoing cough and he lost his place in his sports team.
Paula says it was impossible for him to keep up his intense training because of his cough and general tiredness.
It took him another six months to fully recover, finding all aspects of life harder than before he became sick. By the end of the year he had decided that he had reached his peak in his sport and would drop back a level.
‘Having the measles was just such an assault on his system. It was just the most frightening, alarming thing. Not having the children immunised was the most foolish decision. It could have cost us our son’s life,’ Paula says.
‘I really wondered if he was ever going to be well again. It was really scary, with so much guilt about the decision we had made.’
The Sullivan family is now up to date with their immunisations. Tom is in year 13, has recovered his health and is looking forward to life after secondary school.
This case study was originally published in Immunisation: Making a choice for your children.
* The family interviewed for this story asked that their names be changed to protect their privacy.