The New York Times reported yesterday about a recent epidemic of pertussis (whooping cough) in Washington State.

According to the article by Kirk Johnson, over 1,200 cases have been reported so far this year, a ten-fold increase in the number of cases reported in the same period last year.

Pertussis is one of the infectious diseases that all children are supposed to be vaccinated against in this country. According to the article in the NYT:

Pertussis was once a dreaded disease of childhood — killing 5,000 to 10,000 Americans a year from the 1920s through the 1940s — but is now a risk mostly to infants, to whom it is fatal in about 1 percent of cases. Most of the victims in Washington, as in previous outbreaks in other states, are between 8 and 12…. Washington State, 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.

So far, there have been no fatalities from this outbreak. But the risk is real, and it may only be a matter of time until there are, depending upon how many infants are ultimately infected.

Writing in the Pacific Standard last month, I noted that:

The percentage of American parents refusing to vaccinate their children has steadily risen over the last two decades (more than doubling between 1991-2004) despite the proven and unqualified success of childhood immunizations in reducing death and disability from infectious disease. According to one recent study on parental attitudes toward vaccinations, 13 percent of parents of children between the ages of 6 months and 6 years reported not vaccinating their children according to the recommended schedule. Nine percent refused some or all of the regular childhood immunizations for their children.

When the percentage of the population vaccinated falls below a certain number (92-94 percent in the case of measles, for instance), infectious disease can spread much more easily, making many more ill. We have been seeing a lot more outbreaks of pertussis and measles recently in this country, and the individual and public health risks are huge. These in addition to the costs associated with diagnosis, containment, and treatment once people do get sick.

About the Author

Dennis Rosen, M.D.

Dennis Rosen, M.D., is a pediatric pulmonologist and sleep specialist who practices at Boston Children's Hospital.

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