Vaccine refusals are creating whooping cough epidemics

immunizations in 1922
CC BY 2.0 Brisbane City Council

Old-fashioned diseases are making a scary comeback. Measles, mumps, and pertussis (whooping cough) are infecting both children and adults, thanks to the anti-vaccination movement that has gathered steam in recent years. From 2011 to 2012, reported cases of pertussis were up more than threefold in 21 states. In 2012, the Center for Disease Control announced that the number of pertussis cases was at its highest since 1955, with 48,277 reported cases. Washington state proclaimed an epidemic in 2012; Texas did in 2013. This fall, Cincinnati reported a 283 percent increase in pertussis. In other words, we’ve got a real problem on our hands.

Julia Ioffe, a 31-year-old journalist, who was immunized against pertussis as a child, describes what it’s like to get whooping cough as an adult:

“I have been coughing for 72 days. Not on and off coughing, but continuously, every day and every night, for two and a half months. And not just coughing, but whooping: doubled over, body clenched, sucking violently for air, my face reddening and my eyes watering. Sometimes I cough so hard, I vomit. Other times I pee myself.”

It sounds like a nightmare. The efficacy of the pertussis vaccine usually wears off by adulthood but this has never been a problem until recently because “it’s hard to get sick from people who aren’t sick.” Pertussis is longer an impersonal, historical disease, but something terrifying and vile that has breached the seeming safety of modern medicine.

By choosing not to vaccinate their children, parents implicate everyone else around them. It’s not an individual decision, as they may like to think, but has a major impact on an entire nation, as the above stats show. Up until now, we’ve been protected by “herd immunity,” which means that the people who aren’t vaccinated (because they’re pregnant, babies, sick, or old) are protected because 95% of the population has been immunized. Any less than that and the risk of outbreak increases significantly. And yet, in 2012, only 91% of kindergartners in California were up to date on their shots.

As a parent, I know firsthand how the controversy and fear-mongering surrounding immunizations can be overwhelming. It’s tempting to look at a fragile baby and not want to inject it with vaccine-loaded needles, but then I stop and picture that same baby racked by vomit-inducing coughs and gasping for air. Suddenly a needle doesn’t seem so bad by comparison. The autism-vaccine link has been disproven, the doctor who came up with it discredited, and its former Playmate spokeswoman made to look rather foolish. I’m a staunch supporter of natural childrearing, but I think there are other better ways to care for kids than opting out of immunizations, potentially risking their lives and the lives of people in our communities.

Vaccine refusals are creating whooping cough epidemics
Personal belief exemptions affect everyone by reducing "herd immunity."

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