The 9,120 people who contracted whooping cough three years ago in California should not have become sick. The whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine is one that children are supposed to receive first at the age of two months and then routinely until they reach adulthood. In recent years, due in part to unsubstantiated fears that vaccines could cause autism, many parents have chosen not to vaccinate their children or to give them vaccines at a slower rate than public health officials recommend.
A study published last Monday establishes that mistaken beliefs about vaccines have been deadly. The Pediatrics study found higher rates of whooping cough in areas where more people had sought to exempt their children from taking vaccines.
Health officials have long suspected that the 2010 whooping cough outbreak which took the lives of ten infants could be connected to some children not being vaccinated. The Pediatrics study presents evidence of an actual link. Scientists from Johns Hopkins University found that people living where a high number of parents had opted not to vaccinate their children were 2.5 times more likely to be in an area where there was a high rate of whooping cough cases.
It’s Really Easy to Catch Whooping Cough (If You’re Not Vaccinated)
Failing to vaccinate children and others can have dangerous consequences. Like measles, whooping cough is highly contagious. A person with the flu is likely to infect one to two unvaccinated individuals. But someone who has whooping cough can infect 13 to 15 people who are not vaccinated.
Infants and young children are especially susceptible to contracting whooping cough. While infants can be first vaccinated at two months, they are not fully protected from whooping cough until they are six months old. About half of the infants who are less than one year old who contract whooping cough need to be hospitalized; of those hospitalized, one or two out of 100 will die. Children and adults may be carriers for whooping cough without showing visible symptoms and a cough or a sneeze is enough to spread the disease.
After the 2010 outbreak, the state of California took concerted steps to prevent another outbreak: birthing centers began to offer the vaccine so parents could be sure that infants were protected against the disease. The California state legislature also passed a new law that will go into effect next year, under which it will be more difficult for parents to get non-medical vaccine exemptions for their children.
Other states could find themselves having to take similar measures. North Texas is currently experiencing what some are calling a whooping cough epidemic. Two deaths — both of infants too young to be immunized, as in California in 2010 — have been so far reported as have a total of 2,160 cases as of September 10. In 2012, a total of 2,218 cases (more than twice the amount in 2011) have occurred.
How Quickly People Forget How Dangerous a Disease Can Be
Jessica Atwell, lead author on the study and a Ph.D. candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, attributes the increases in California to people having lost their fear of highly contagious, and potentially fatal, diseases like whooping cough and measles. Parents simply do not “realize how fragile our control of diseases like this is,” she comments.
Not only are the unvaccinated more likely to become ill, but getting your vaccines can help others from becoming ill. When a high percentage of people in a community (between 93 and 95 percent) have been vaccinated, those who have not been immunized are also protected by “herd immunity.”
Azwell adds that many parents are “consciously deciding not to do [vaccinations].” She and other scientists, including UCLA medical school professor Nina Shapiro, point out a curious phenomenon, that lower rates of vaccinated children tend to be found in affluent areas (only 58 percent of kindergarteners in Malibu are up to date on their vaccinations). “Thanks” to the internet, well-meaning parents are now able to research an infinite amount of information about vaccines, autism and other health issues. But as we all know, the internet can as easily misinform as it can inform.
The Case For “Unvaccinated-free Zones”
Shapiro argues that, just as many preschools and elementary schools says they are nut-free or peanut-free, so should all schools be “unvaccinated-free zones”:
Private schools vary widely, but some have rates of less than 20%. Yes, that’s right: Parents are willingly paying up to $25,000 a year to schools at which fewer than 1 in 5 kindergartners has been immunized against the pathogens causing such life-threatening illnesses as measles, polio, meningitis and pertussis (more commonly known as whooping cough). In order for a school to be considered truly immunized, from a public health standpoint, its immunization rate needs to be 90% or higher.
I can already hear the objections from some that “forcing” all children to be vaccinated impinges on their personal rights (a similar argument made against Obamacare) and is counter to the religious and philosophical beliefs of some. Such beliefs are precisely those cited by parents seeking exemptions from vaccinating children. In some cases, parents have chosen to homeschool children — like those who belonged to a Texas megachurch and became infected with measles in August – instead of “subjecting” them to a school district’s immunization requirements.
To create herd immunity, a high percentage of members of a community must be vaccinated. Those who prefer not to are expressing their personal beliefs but also endangering all of us and, arguably, infringing on an entire community’s health. The new Pediatrics study provides vital evidence to what should be obvious: foregoing vaccines means you, and those around you, could become very, very ill with a preventable disease.
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