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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Whooping Cough Epidemic Hits Washington State

Nurses Fatima Guillen, left, and Fran Wendt, right, give Kimberly Magdeleno, 4, a Tdap whooping cough booster shot, as she is held by her mother, Claudia Solorio, at a health clinic in Tacoma, Wash. (AP)

The last time Washington state saw more cases of whooping cough was back in the 1940s, before the pertussis vaccine was available.

The CDC recommends that preteens, teens and adults be vaccinated for whooping cough, even if they were vaccinated as children.

Public health officials say there is an epidemic, with nearly 1,300 cases this year, over 10 times last year’s numbers.

Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, chief of Communicable Disease and Immunizations for King County, Washington, told Here & Now‘s Robin Young that a number of factors could be contributing to the uptick, including a change in the vaccine. A new vaccine was created in the 90s that minimizes side effects, but it appears to last a shorter period of time, says Duchin.

Another factor is the high number of children in the state who are not vaccinated.

“We do have a large number of people in Washington state who don’t immunize their children fully, and clearly that’s not helping the situation at all,” Duchin said.

As the New York Times reports:

According to a federal study last year of kindergarten-age children, had the highest percentage of parents in the nation who voluntarily exempted their children from one or more vaccines, out of fear of side effects or for philosophical reasons.

Who Should Get Vaccinated For Whooping Cough?

Children are typically vaccinated against whooping cough when they’re young, but protection from the childhood vaccine decreases over time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that preteens, teens and adults be revaccinated, even if they were completely vaccinated as children. These recommendations are for all Americans, not just those in states with whooping cough outbreaks.

“The older kids and adults sometimes aren’t aware that they are recommended to have a Tdap or pertussis booster so we have many unimmunized adults,” Dr. Jeffrey Duchin said.

It is also recommended that pregnant women who have not received the whooping cough booster shot talk with their doctor about getting the vaccine, preferably during the third or late second trimester, or immediately after the baby’s delivery.

What You Need To Know About Whooping Cough

Whooping cough is a highly contagious disease caused by bacteria. It starts like a common cold, but after 1-2 weeks, severe coughing can begin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But for many adults, whooping cough can just feel like a common cold. They may not realize they have it and can unintentionally spread it to others.

Whooping cough can be deadly for babies, who often do not exhibit the typical symptoms of coughing.

Down Economy Not Helping In Washington

In Washington state, officials have been offering vaccinations, but the recession has hampered relief efforts.

For example, Skagit County, near Seattle, has cut its public health staff in half since 2008 and has mostly shut down its preventive health programs.

Because the price tag on the test for whooping cough is $400, some doctors are being advised to forego the test for patients exhibiting symptoms, and to begin treatment, which consists of antibiotics.

Whooping cough cases are also up in a number of states across the country, from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania. And a death has been reported in both Idaho and New Mexico.


  • Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, Chief, Epidemiology and Immunization Section and professor in infectious diseases, University of Washington

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  • Meredith Kowalsky

    At the age of 42 I was diagnosed with whooping cough.  I was told it was  because when I was immunized as a child, it was probably during the short period when the pertussis vaccine was left out because of some issues with it.  My doctor said that because of parents not vaccinating their children today it is becoming more and more common again.  I was told to plan on coughing for 100 days no matter the treatment.  It was a long 100 days and I don’t wish it on any child or adult.  Parents who choose not to vaccinate their children are not taking into consideration how it may affect others around them.

    • Karyn Miller-Medzon

      Hi Meredith,
      Sounds like your experience was rough. Just to be clear to other adults, one of the reasons that adults contract pertussis is because they don’t receive timely booster shots. So even those vaccinated as kids should check with their physicians about getting the booster (particularly adults working with children, those with their own children, or those who are pregnant). Thanks for your comment,
      Karyn Miller-Medzon (H&N producer)

  • NonnerDoIt

    Following up on Meredith’s comment, I know that some vaccinations are not 100% effective and rely on the population being largely vaccinated to reduce spread/exposure.  A few parents that don’t vaccinate their kids can probably rely on the vaccination of others to prevent their kids even being exposed.  A lot of parents not vaccinating their kids cancels out the general suppressive effect of vaccination and may even result in people who are vaccinated getting the disease.  

    • Saraiderin2

      A few parents not vaccinating their kids? Washington State has the highest rate of parents opting out of vaccinating their children and the highest rate of whooping cough in the nation. I agree that adults should get their booster shots. I got mine two years ago, during a flu shot clinic the country health department had. In addition to getting my flu shot, I also got a Tdap shot. I was not afraid of catching whooping cough, but was not willing to risk it either.

      • NonnerDoIt

        We’re in agreement then. Clearly enough (possibly far too many) parents in WA are not vaccinating that the suppressive effect of general vaccination is overwhelmed. Basically not enough are vaccinating to allow free riders. My point was that parents that don’t vaccinate are not only endangering their own kids, but because the vaccines are not 100% effective and non-vaccinators increase general exposure, they are endangering the children of responsible parents who DO vaccinate!

  • Lisa

    Meredith, I’m also sorry that you contracted whooping cough, but wish you wouldn’t blame your misfortune solely on parents who choose not to vaccinate their children.  As Ms. Miller-Medzon pointed out, teens and adults may need boosters to ensure our immunity is up to date – which would then lead to more protection for ourselves & for the general population. 

    Vaccinating infants may not be the “best choice” for society in the long-run, particularly against pertussis which is not usually life threatening, since giving infants the currently-recommended multitude of vaccines also carries important risks.  See, for example, http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/75333.php (2007 study showing vaccinated children are 2.5 times more likely to suffer from neurological disorders like ADHD and autism)

  • skeptic

    Maybe the nursing care homes should have mass vaccination boosters, since they are the breeding ground for whooping cough…and yet, like the article said, the test for whooping cough is expensive, why do it for older people?  Or…maybe the vaccination experimentation on a mass scale isn’t the right tactic?  Or…maybe, driving kills thousands of times more people per year…we could focus as much energy on that?  So many possibilities…more vaccines please.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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