One night, Heidi Robertson woke up with coughing fits so frequent, she couldn’t catch her breath between them. The intense pressure in her abdomen caused by the coughing spasms made it impossible for her to even control her bladder.
“I was so bruised. Every muscle in my body was aching,” she told Global Citizen.
After nearly 15 minutes of painful coughing, Robertson vomited, which ended the coughing fit, and allowed her to fall back asleep. Hours later, she woke up and it happened all over again. The coughing was so intense, she burst blood vessels around her eyes.
When she initially developed the cough, Robertson thought nothing of it. As it worsened, a friend encouraged her to get tested for pertussis, also known as whooping cough, a highly contagious respiratory disease which is preventable through vaccination. It was 2008 and Robertson, who was in her third trimester of pregnancy at the time, believed she was up to date on her vaccinations — so she was terrified when she tested positive.
“I thought, 'What happens if I give birth to this baby a few weeks early and I’m still infectious?' Because a newborn baby cannot handle it like an adult can. I was barely coping with it myself,” she said.
Heidi Robertson works in her office at home in New South Whales, Australia, Nov. 24, 2020.
Although Robertson had been vaccinated against whooping cough before, she was unaware that she needed a booster shot, which is an additional dose of a previously administered vaccine that boosts immunity, and is recommended every 10 years. Robertson, who worked for a decade as an ambulance paramedic in Australia and who had travelled around the world as part of the medical team for the reality TV show Survivor, immediately self-isolated, concerned that she would infect her husband and 18-month-old toddler to whom she was the primary caregiver.
“It seemed to go on for so long. It was an intense period and I couldn't see an end in sight,” she said. “I think it contributed to the pre- and post-natal depression I had… I was exhausted, guilty, and angry.”
After four weeks, Robertson was no longer infectious, but she continued to deal effects including coughing fits and a weakened respiratory system. She was relieved when she delivered a healthy baby boy who did not contract whooping cough.
At the time, Robertson did not realize she likely became infected due to low vaccination rates because of a rising anti-vaccination movement in New South Wales.
One day when dropping her toddler off at preschool, another mother had told her that her child had contracted mumps.
“I said, ‘How does a kid get mumps? She would have had the vaccine.’ This mom just looked at me and said, ‘No, we don’t vaccinate and turned away.’” Robertson was perplexed. “I started to Google, looking up all this stuff, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I moved to this place where people think it’s OK not to vaccinate.’”
Signs are pictured on a building in Mullumbimby, New South Wales, Australia. In Mullumbimby, childhood vaccination rates are approximately 50% — meaning 1 out of every 2 children is not fully immunized.
Robertson’s family had recently moved to the hills of Byron Bay, the most eastern point of Australia and a tourist destination. Ten minutes from their home is Mullumbimby, a town known for its alternative lifestyle — and for being an anti-vaccination hotspot.
“They think fresh air, sunshine, and organic food is enough to fight off disease, which is simply not true. It won’t give you the antibodies,” Robertson said.
While support for vaccines generally remains high, a small, but growing movement of people who oppose vaccinations due to health risks, bias towards alternative medicines, and conspiracy theories continue to spread fear. While those who are anti-vaccine, also known as anti-vaxxers, staunchly oppose vaccines, others who are "vaccine hesitant" are on the fence about vaccinations and are likely to be open to vaccines when reassured and provided with medical evidence.
“I was angry because there were so many parents around me who believed they didn't have to vaccinate,” the mother of two said. “I thought me and my newborn [could have paid] the price for it.”
Robertson stumbled upon Facebook groups where parents would discuss vaccination, and it didn’t take long before she was consumed by the groups, astonished at the anti-vaccine philosophy, and engaging with people online.
“It used to be quite an obsession and I had to dial it back for my own well-being. I’d spend hours a day doing that. It was a lot of anger driving me and I really wanted to change everybody’s mind,” she explained.
The encounters she has had with anti-vaxxers have been unpleasant, although Robertson says she’s developed thick skin. One time, in Mullumbimby, while Roberterson was being interviewed on television about vaccines, a passerby who overheard the conversation even spat on her.
Over time, she began to channel her efforts more strategically. Robertson is now the administrator of the Northern Rivers Vaccination Supporters. The volunteer group, which is self-funded, engages with parents who are on the fence about vaccinations and disseminates accurate information about them on their website, which is approved by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Heidi Robertson works on the Northern Rivers Vaccination Supporters group, at home in her office in New South Whales, Australia.
“We don’t seek out anti-vaxxers because we know we can’t change their minds. Once they’re entrenched in that ideology, you can’t talk them out of it,” Robertson said.
The Northern Rivers Vaccination Supporters also run a private Facebook group that people can’t join unless an existing member of the group vouches for and invites them, in order to keep it a safe space for parents in the group who have lost their children to preventable diseases like whooping cough, measles, and polio.
Robertson, who felt guilty when she tested positive for whooping cough, says it drove her to becoming an advocate.
“I want to try and make amends for what I’ve done,” she said. “I could have caused a whole lot of damage unknowingly.”
Heidi Robertson poses for a portrait at her home in New South Wales, Australia on Nov. 24, 2020.
If 2020 has taught us anything about global health, it’s the importance of vaccines. The World's Best Shot is a profile series dedicated to sharing the stories of vaccine activists around the world.