The other side of the whooping cough debateMarch 29th, 2012 by brynn grimley
Today I wrote a story about the rise of pertussis, or whooping cough, cases reported in Kitsap County. According to data from the Kitsap Public Health District, there have been 21 cases reported from December 2011 to March 19.
Compare that to the 11 cases reported for most of 2011 (from January to November) and you can see why health district Director Dr. Scott Lindquist referred to the jump as an “obvious increase” in usual cases.
In his report Lindquist doesn’t address why we might be seeing this increase, but doing a little research online it seems the reason we’re seeing a resurgence of this disease is because people aren’t getting vaccinated against it. That includes parents who consciously choose not to immunize their infants because of the risks associated with the vaccination, or adults who were vaccinated during their younger years but never got the shot again — after a number of years the immunity of the shot wanes and needs to be re-administered.
If you’re not familiar with whooping cough, or its symptoms, here’s what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has to say:
Whooping cough is a serious and highly contagious respiratory disease that can cause long, violent coughing fits and the characteristic “whooping” sound when a person gasps for air. It takes a toll on anyone, but for infants it can be deadly. In 2010, 27,550 cases of whooping cough were reported nationally with 27 deaths — 25 of which were infants. Worldwide, there are 30‐50 million cases of whooping cough per year resulting in about 300,000 deaths.
Yesterday I spoke with one parent who with his wife chose not to get their newborn immunized against the disease. The conversation didn’t fit into the story I wrote about Kitsap seeing a rise in cases, but I wanted to provide his perspective on why they opted not to immunize their 11 month old daughter Edythe.
Bremerton residents Kevin and Adele Connally aren’t against vaccinations, but after doing some research they decided not to immunize themselves, or go through the immunization schedule for their daughter against whooping cough.
“I’m not actually pro- or anti-immunization,” Kevin Connally said. “I’m just anti some immunizations.”
Connally said he found research that showed the whooping cough vaccine can be damaging to one’s immune system and cited statistics from a California study that showed people who were immunized against the disease still caught it.
I asked our local health district about this, and they said it’s true people who are immunized can catch the disease, but often the symptoms are milder and typically its the people who were immunized but the potency of the vaccine has waned that are susceptible — that’s because it’s been a number of years since they were given the shot.
The debate over whether to immunize against the disease is not unique to America, nor is it new. I found this abstract on the National Institutes of Health’s website. It looks like it’s from a medical journal article published in the 1980s, but its topic is relevant today:
There has been extensive debate in Great Britain regarding the risks and benefits of routine infant immunization against whooping cough. As a result of highly publicized cases of brain damage alleged to have been caused by the vaccine, immunization acceptance rates have dropped dramatically and epidemics of the disease have recurred.
On the basis of a review of the current state of knowledge on whooping cough, the vaccine, and vaccine safety, the authors conclude that the dangers of the disease outweigh any known hazards of the vaccine. Although whooping cough is less important a cause of death and disability at present, it remains a potentially lethal disease that should be controlled.
The safety of the vaccine is an especially critical question, however, since it is being advocated for use on a mass scale in previously healthy children. The results of studies such as the National Childhood Encephalopathy Study suggest DPT vaccination is associated with a greater frequency of acute neurological illnesses than would be expected by chance. On the other hand, most cases of such complications were not time-associated with DPT vaccination and may have resulted from the less purified vaccines used in the past.
The most critical element in decision making is the readiness of parents and doctors to accept the fact that active preventive measures such as pertussis immunization sometimes carry unavoidable risks that have to be weighed against the risk of nonintervention.
The Connally’s measured the risks to benefits, and decided against giving their daughter the series of shots that start at 2 months. Instead they made a conscious effort to do everything they can to keep her, and themselves, from catching it.
That includes breast feeding Edythe, which research has shown boosts a child’s immunity by passing along antibodies from the mother, among other benefits. While she’s still breastfeeding, Connally says they also feed Edythe solid foods that are known to boost her immunity, including a diet rich in vegetables and fruit, and fiber to help build “good cultures in her gut,” Connally said.
While they made the choice not to immunize Edythe, Connally was up front with me in our interview and told me they think she could currently have whooping cough. They don’t know how she caught it — possibly from kids at church or in the neighborhood, Connally said — and they won’t know until they hear back from the doctor what the test results show. They took her in on Wednesday to be checked out.