An epidemic of whooping cough

June 5, 2012 

PULLMAN, Wash -- Even if you don’t have kids in your household, you could be exposed to serious diseases that often affect children.

And at the moment, there’s a sharp spike upward in one contagious disease that you could help protect yourself and youngsters against by getting a simple shot at the doctor’s office.

Vaccines stand at the heart of medical science that can help protect us against a number of serious, contagious diseases. They may not grant us perfect immunity, but they have helped transform the landscape of a number of problems that used to plague us, particularly in childhood.

That’s my take on the general issues of vaccination and, in particular, the vaccine against whooping cough (pertussis). Pertussis is a serious bacterial disease that leads to a strong cough that lasts for weeks.

Occasionally, whooping cough can even be fatal, especially for infants. It gets its distinctive name from the “whooping” sound victims make as they gasp for air after bouts of serious coughing.

My own fair state of Washington has declared an epidemic for whooping cough. According to The New York Times, Washington state has reported almost 1,300 cases so far this year, and that’s a whopping 10 times the number we had a year ago.

We are on track to hit totals not seen since the 1940s, before there were vaccines widely used against pertussis. Happily, no deaths have thus far been reported, but looking at the numbers of cases alone, authorities in my state have declared an official epidemic.

Whooping cough can strike people of any age, but it’s riskiest mostly for infants, being fatal about 1 percent of the time. I find that sobering, and it makes me think it’s worth assuming some risk getting vaccinated to help protect the young.

One reason my home state may be having a high proportion of pertussis cases is that we have the highest percentage of parents nationwide who decline to vaccinate their kids. Some do so out of fear of side effects from the shots, some because of religious or other concerns.

The New York Times talked with Dr. Thomas Clark of the Center for Disease Control about the matter, and he said the modern vaccine for pertussis may be another factor in the current outbreak of disease. In the 1990s, the vaccine was modified to limit side effects, and Clark said the immunity granted by the vaccine doesn’t last as long as desired.

On the good side, even if you do come down with pertussis, if you had the vaccine against it you’ll likely come down with a milder case than you would otherwise.

The adult booster for whooping cough is called Tdap, which stands for tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis.

The Associated Press reported that us adults contribute quite a bit to the pertussis problem. There are more adults in the general population than there used to be (in other words, the population is aging) and unless adults regularly get booster shots, the disease is always threatening to spike upward.

That’s why wherever you live throughout the nation, authorities recommend you ask your doctor about your vaccination status the next time you go in for a medical visit.

I think this is a case in which we all individually need to do our bit because public health programs have been cut in recent years. As a byproduct of the recession, the efforts of health departments have been curtailed in many states across the nation.

While nobody likes to get a shot, the risks of not having one are real, both for ourselves and for little ones among us.

* Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Planet Rock Doc, a collection of Peters’ columns, is available at bookstores or from the publisher at or 1-800-354-7360. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

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