Whooping Cough: A Comeback Story Nobody Loves

By Wolfson, Elijah | Newsweek, October 11, 2013 | Go to article overview

Whooping Cough: A Comeback Story Nobody Loves


Wolfson, Elijah, Newsweek


Byline: Elijah Wolfson

Epidemiologists did their best to warn everyone, but too many people had their own ideas. Now it's happening: The highly contagious and potentially fatal disease pertussis, also known as whooping cough - practically eradicated in the United States until just a few years ago - is making a virulent comeback. Medical researchers know why it's spreading, and they know how to stop it. The trouble is that so many people refuse to listen to them.

A newly published study in the official journal Pediatrics lays out the facts behind the resurgence. Its root cause is a persistent epidemic of misinformation about vaccines, which is leading parents to decline to have their children immunized. The study focuses on a dramatic 2010 outbreak in California, where the number of reported whooping cough cases soared to 9,120, including 10 infant deaths. It was the state's worst eruption of the disease in more than 60 years, and fully nine times the total recorded across the entire United States in 1976, when a concerted immunization program had all but wiped out the pathogen.

Public-health officials at first blamed a new, weakened strain of the pertussis vaccine. But the Pediatrics study's lead author, Jennifer Atwell, only a first-year graduate student back then, began to suspect a different culprit when she attended a talk on the resurgence of preventable diseases by Daniel Salmon, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, He spoke of an earlier whooping cough outbreak in Michigan, where the illness was at its worst in geographic clusters of parents who had chosen not to have their children vaccinated.

Atwell approached Salmon after his talk, and they decided to investigate the California outbreak using the state's public-health records. Like every other state, California requires proof of immunization against pertussis and other diseases before a student can enroll in a public school. But like almost every other state (Mississippi is the sole exception), it allows some parents to opt out of receiving the shots. And California makes it particularly easy, Atwell says - parents have only to sign a form stating that vaccines go against their religious or philosophical beliefs.

Working with a team that included researchers from Emory University in Atlanta the California Department of Public Health, Atwell and Salmon found that the ratio of school kids without immunizations had more than tripled in the preceding decade years from 0.77 percent to 2.33 percent, with the figure at some schools as high as 84 percent. …

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