As Vaccinations Decline, Whooping Cough Returns

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It’s a horrific and heartbreaking sight: Whooping cough victims wracked with prolonged coughing spasms so violent that they sometimes break their ribs. It often (though not always) creates a strange, sickening “whooping” sound as patients struggle to inhale air after such coughing, and is often accompanied by vomiting. If left untreated, the coughing fits can last two or three months and interfere with eating and sleeping — and can be fatal.

Though adults can catch whooping cough, it is most often found in children. It sounds like something from the Middle Ages akin to the black plague, but whooping cough is making a scary comeback.

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According to a New York Times article,

Whooping cough, or pertussis, a highly infectious respiratory disease once considered doomed by science, has struck Washington State this spring with a severity that health officials say could surpass the toll of any year since the 1940s, before a vaccine went into wide use…. Although no deaths have been reported so far this year, the state has declared an epidemic and public health officials say the numbers are staggering: 1,284 cases through early May, the most in at least three decades and 10 times last year’s total at this time, 128.

Why the resurgence in the disease? There are several reasons, including that the bacteria that causes it (Bordetella pertussis or Bordetella parapertussis) have mutated and evolved, making traditional antibiotics less effective. But many public health officials see a much bigger problem: parents refusing to vaccinate their children.

Dr. Steven Novella, a Yale physician writing on the Science-Based Medicine blog, points out that “there are serious concerns about vaccine refusal as a contributor to the resurgence of whooping cough. Thanks to the anti-vaccine movement there is unsubstantiated fear about the safety of vaccines. In particular there are pockets of vaccine refusal resulting in a loss of herd immunity. Herd immunity results when enough of the population is immune so that an infectious disease cannot spread, so cases become isolated and do not cause an epidemic. Without herd immunity pertussis infections can spread through a population.”

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Novella also refutes a claim often made by parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, that as long as other kids are vaccinated they don’t need to vaccinate their own. “The evidence indicates that unvaccinated children are at higher risk of developing whooping cough than vaccinated children. Existing herd immunity is not sufficient to protect the unvaccinated, even in areas of high vaccine compliance. Further there is early evidence that whooping cough is spreading the most in counties that have a high vaccine refusal rate.”

Though there is a small risk of side effects from vaccinations (like any medical procedures) the consequences of not vaccinating children are far worse.

Photo: Corbis