Pertussis, more commonly known as whooping cough, is another vaccine-preventable illness that has been making a comeback in recent years due to low vaccination rates. In fact, pertussis is now considered the most poorly-controlled vaccine-preventable bacterial disease in the developed world. It is especially dangerous to babies, who are too young to be vaccinated, so when herd immunity drops, the most vulnerable populations are left at risk.

In the early 1930s, prior to vaccines, pertussis killed up to 7,500 people each year, more than 10-times as many as the numbers killed from measles or smallpox. Nearly all of its victims were infants and children. After the vaccine was introduced, pertussis deaths dropped from 7,518 in 1934 to just 10 a year by the early 1970s. Under-vaccination in the developing world continues to kill an estimated 160,700 each year, most of them children. (Conniff, 2022)

The whooping cough vaccine
The vaccine against whooping cough was first developed by Pearl Kendrick, working with Grace Eldering and Loney Clinton Gordon (an African-American woman) to develop the precursors of the combined diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine in use today. Their work has helped save tens of millions of people worldwide. The vaccine is officially listed as 90% effective when properly administered, though some evidence suggests this immunity rate might be slipping.

Seventy-three percent of kids aged 7 to 10 who caught pertussis during a bad outbreak in Washington State in 2012 had been fully vaccinated. A November 2012 analysis by the CDC found that the vaccine’s effectiveness begins to wane after a year, and 5 years after kids receive the final dose, it provides just 70% protection. Today’s B pertussis strains seem to have acquired mutations in each of the proteins used to make the accellular vaccines, which might be the reason why immunity is dropping. (Wenner-Moyer, 2013 B) This doesn’t mean the vaccine is ineffective or that you shouldn’t give it to your child; it is still preventing many kids from getting sick, and vaccinated children typically get less ill even when they catch it. It’s just that when immunity rates drop low enough to allow it a foothold, three in every 10 fully-vaccinated kids are susceptible to catching it.

Like all other vaccines, it has become a victIm of its own success: People have forgotten about how horrible the disease it prevented was, and in that complacency have let vaccination rates slide. “Who are the men and women living today who would be dead from whooping cough had it not been for Pearl Kendrick’s vaccine?” asks Richard Remington. “Name one. You can’t do it and neither can I… The accomplishments of disease prevention are statistical and epidemiological. Where’s the news value, the human interest in that?” (Coniff, 2022, p. 31)

The danger of whooping cough
Prior to the advent of the vaccine, whooping cough sickened around 300,000 people a year in the United States, killing around 7,000, most of them children. (Szabo, 1-11-2011) Unfortunately, the disease is making a comeback and is still killing children today because of anti-vaccine movements.

There were 26,000 reported U.S. cases in 2004, compared to just 1,000 in 1976 when vaccination rates were higher. (Szabo, 5-262009) A 2010 outbreak sickened 9,000 people in California alone, killing 10 babies under one year of age. (Szabo, 8-9-2011) A study in the Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal in March of 2009 found that 91 babies under the age of 1 died of whooping cough from 1999 to 2004, more than half of them under two months old, the stage at which infants are scheduled to get their first in a series of shots to inoculate them from the disease. So the health of our nation’s babies depends upon the rest of us doing our job to keep up herd immunity. A study authored by Jason Glanz, published in the May 26, 2009 issue of Pediatrics, found that 1 in 20 children who skipped the pertussis vaccine developed the illness, compared to I in 50-0 vaccinated children. (Szabo, 5-262009)

Signs of whooping cough
Pertussis can be difficult to spot in the early stages, and by the time it becomes apparent it’s nearly impossible to treat, one of the reasons vaccines are so important. “It can seem like nothing at first: a runny nose and a mild cough,” notes Richard Coniff. “A parent watching a baby in her crib might notice a pause in her breathing but relax when the steady rise and fall of the chest resumes. A doctor can miss it, too: Just a cold, nothing to worry about. One to two weeks in, though, the coughing can begin to come in violent spasms, too fast to allow for breathing, until the sharp, strangled bark breaks through of the child desperately gasping to get air down her throat.” (Coniff, 2022, p. 24) There’s little doctors can do once the advanced whooping stage sets in, other than keep the child as comfortable as possible and hope they survive it.

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