Whooping cough: Alice turned her daughter’s brush with death into a positive campaign for better health

Gary Finnegan

Gary Finnegan

November 21st, 2016

Gary Finnegan
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‘Baby Anja was hospitalised for days and coughed for eight months. Now a happy and healthy one-year-old, Anja’s traumatic experience inspired her mother to become a vaccine champion.’

The story begins last July when Anja was just 40 days’ old. “She had a cold – or so it seemed,” recalls her mother Alice Pignatti. “But it kept getting worse.”

Then Anja’s cough became more frequent until she needed urgent medical care. “We were really scared at one point because she started to have a serious attack and couldn’t breathe,” Alice recalls. “We went to a paediatrician who said it could be whooping cough and to go to hospital if it gets any worse.”

And it did. That night Anja was hospitalised and the diagnosis was confirmed. After five days in hospital she was allowed to go home – but that was not the end of the trauma.

“She coughed for eight months,” recalls Alice. “Should couldn’t sleep, should couldn’t lie down comfortably, I couldn’t breastfeed her and we couldn’t go out.”

On one occasion, Alice and Anja ventured out for a walk but a coughing fit soon attracted the attention of onlookers.

“I took her up to help her breathe,” she says. “It felt like people were looking at me saying with their eyes ‘do something to help her’ but I couldn’t do anything. As a mother you feel completely useless.”

All she could do was continue to give Anja the antibiotics doctors had prescribed, and wait and hope that nothing more serious happens.

The cough that dominated Anja’s first year of life passed – eventually – but even today the experience keeps Alice on alert: “When she gets a cold or has a problem I still feel very scared because I don’t know if the infection compromised her system. As her mother, it’s still a concern.”

The bright side

Somehow, Alice found the resolve to turn her family’s difficulty into an opportunity to help others. It all started with a selfie and ended with legislative change.

After the birth of Anja’s older brother, Alice had become active on social networks discussing parenting issues which connected her with other parents interested in vaccines.

Then in October 2105 she and a group of other mothers decided to take action to protect more people from vaccine-preventable diseases like whooping cough: “Rather than just get angry with people posting bad information on Facebook, we started an online petition.”

Alice, a graphic designer, took a selfie and posted it using the hashtag #IoVaccino (I vaccinate) to help promote the campaign. Within two weeks, 35,000 people had signed the online petition, sparking a flurry of media interest.

Io vaccino

Team Vax

Soon, she joined TeamVaxItalia – a group of bloggers, students, parents and other citizens committed to sharing quality vaccination information.

“The network was created to inform parents on the risks they run when they decide not to vaccinate. We want to provide facts and support them in their decisions,” Alice says. “One of the goals is to raise awareness of immunisation as a matter of social responsibility.”

But, more than that, the group set itself a goal: to change vaccination policy in Italy. As a result, Alice’s region, Emilia-Romagna, will make vaccination mandatory for kindergarten children from next September. Four other regions are discussing the idea and TeamVaxItalia hopes others will follow, perhaps even extending the rule to primary schools.

“We believe everyone can do something – not just doctors and politicians – to protect our babies,” Alice says. “We don’t see vaccine-preventable diseases so often any more so we can lose sight of how important prevention is.”

Principles of the ‘Team Vax Italia’ Charter

1) Right to prevention
2) Social responsibility
3) Information
4) Countering misinformation
5) Communication
6) Quality

Growing fast

The campaign has taken off and the group has now launched a ‘Charter’ which sets out six principles and 45 actions.

Separate commitments are set out for the public health services, health professionals, educational institutions, citizens and journalists.

As for Anja, she is growing fast too! Now 20 months old, she is a busy walking, talking little girl with her life ahead of her. “I feel very lucky,” Alice says.

“During the last six months I met a lot of mums who had not my luck. Their babies died because of vaccine-preventable diseases. We want to do everything we can to ensure these diseases are a thing of the past. One preventable death is one too many.”

Read: Photo competition – we have a winner

More: How one mother changed Italy’s vaccine policy – and won a prize