The Pertussis Epidemic and the Anti-Vaccination Movement

BlogHer Original Post
Patient about to receive injection in arm

Have your kids brought home as many pertussis (whooping cough) booster information sheets and exposure notices as mine have this school year? These notices, the fact that we're in the middle of a whooping cough epidemic shocks me -- because whooping cough is only supposed to exist in books from other eras, such as Ballet Shoes. Also, like you, I have no real-world experience with pertussis in my family or community, due to the success of our national vaccination program. Whooping cough isn't supposed to happen, not anymore.

These notices should shock you, too -- into action, into calling your pediatrician to make sure your kids are up-to-date on their pertussis vaccinations; into calling your own doctor to make sure you're up-to-date, and getting a Tdap booster if you need it. In other words, into taking pertussis seriously.

Why are we seeing the worst pertussis epidemic in 55 years? Why, in California alone, have nine babies died from pertussis while hundreds more are critically ill? Health officials say it is partially due to the cyclical nature of pertussis. But they also say it's due to parents' autism-related fears about vaccinating their kids, as NPR reported this week. Though theories on vaccine-autism causation have been repeatedly dismissed, mercury-causes-autism organizations such as Generation Rescue are still pushing vaccine theories (if you want to see how vehemently the anti-vaccination movement continues to defend its misinformation, check out the 440+ comments on my recent article Why My Child With Autism Is Fully Vaccinated*).

These vaccine fears, and the actions parents take on behalf of them -- such as signing philosophical vaccine exemptions -- have a real and deadly effect on public health. As reported by KQED's Gabriela Quirós, "... in states where getting an exemption is easy, such as in California, the rate of whooping cough was at least 50 percent higher than in states that made it more difficult for parents to opt out."** (If you are in California, you can see the personal exemption rates for your child's school at: http://www.baycitizen.org/local/counties/immunizations/ -- note only schools with kindergarten students are included.)

This is why California is considering cutting back its immunization exemptions. And this is why California will mandate pertussis vaccinations in all middle schoolers, starting July 2011, an action that pleases the anti-vaccination movement not at all.

The parent in this video demonstrate how the anti-vaccination movement stokes viewers' righteous indignation -- she is complaining that she doesn't want her kid being "collateral damage" for other kids' health -- but she has already been accommodated, she had the right to take a personal exemption, whereas the children exposed to pertussis via their unvaccinated peers have been given no such choice. Yes, her child would have stay home during outbreaks -- that is the only safe option for any child exempt from immunization, whether for medical or philosophical reasons. Besides, who has ever heard anecdotes about middle schoolers regressing into autism? Her claims are rooted in absurdity. I also suspect that, if she had any exposure to vaccine-preventable disease victims, she might reconsider her message.

I recently participated in a pertussis education conference call, arranged by the vaccination education non-profit agency Every Child by Two (www.ecbt.org). The participants included Dr. Ari Brown, pediatrician and author of Baby 411, spokesperson for American Academy of Pediatrics, and medical advisor to Parent magazine, and Danielle Romaguera, mother of infant pertussis victim Gabrielle "Brie" Romaguera. We talked about what pertussis is, how frequently it is mistaken for other illnesses, what its symptoms are, and why it's so important for everyone who can -- not just children -- to get a pertussis booster to protect the vulnerable, especially infants too young for vaccinations. We also listened as Danielle Romaguera told us about the heartbreak of her daugher Brie's delayed pertussis diagnosis, prolonged suffering, and eventual death from pertussis complications. Unfortunately, stories like Brie's are becoming more common. (You can read the complete transcript of our conference call at the original version of this post on my blog.)

So, what can you do to keep your kids and all our kids safe, and help prevent more infant deaths? Again, you can check with your and your kids' doctors. If your kids are up-to-date on their vaccine schedules, they should have received their pertussis vaccinations at their five and ten-year checkups. Adults who have had a tetanus vaccination since 2005 are covered as well. And you don't need to go to your doctor to get the Tdap -- most local pharmacies carry it.

Now that you know how to take action, please do so. Please help protect the health of all of our kids -- especially children with compromised immune systems or who for other reasons can't be vaccinated, and infants too young for pertussis vaccinations. They're relying on you.

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*Why My Child With Autism Is Fully Vaccinated was originally published on The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism, and is an update of my 2009 BlogHer article My Child Has Autism And I Vaccinate.

**Disclosure: Gabriela Quirós is a co-worker of my husband's, but he was not involved with her article, not in any way.

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Shannon Des Roches Rosa writes a lot, at a rate inversely proportional to the hours of sleep she gets, and mostly at ThinkingAutismGuide.com, BlogHer.com, and Squidalicious.com.

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