Blogger Kate Tuttle: It happens every year now, it seems: A deadly childhood disease that had been all but eradicated after the introduction of a vaccine is newly revived in our era of vaccine refusal.
The latest example comes from California, where public health officials warn that over 900 confirmed (and an additional 600 suspected) cases of pertussis -- a.k.a. whooping cough -- have put the state on track for its worst outbreak in 40 years. Five children have died so far (all infants under three months), and it's all but certain that more will die as the outbreak progresses. (The disease can be deadly at any age, but is most dangerous for the very young or otherwise fragile.)
But wait, you say: The standard vaccination schedule doesn't call for kids to get the shot that includes the pertussis vaccine until the two-month visit. How can vaccine refusal be linked to the deaths of kids too young to even be offered the vaccination? And why should anyone who got their kids vaccinated worry about those who chose not to?
It's simple, really. No vaccine is 100 percent effective, and there are always those who cannot be vaccinated because of their age or medical status. Lucky for us, though, as long as the population is mostly vaccinated (experts define "mostly" as around 93 percent or higher), then it's very rare for a disease to break out and cause illness or death. But when the vaccination rate for a community falls below that percentage -- and in some California school districts, it has fallen far below -- previously vanquished childhood diseases can break out, bringing severe illness and even death to a generation that has no memory of how deadly these diseases once were. (Before the pertussis vaccine was developed in the late 1930s, a quarter of a million children got whooping cough every year -- and the disease caused an estimated 10,000 infant deaths annually.)
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Today's parents, many of whom are skeptical of modern medicine's pro-vaccination outlook, are increasingly prone to skip or delay vaccinations -- nowhere more so than in California, where some school districts report that up to 70 percent of parents have received a "personal belief exemption" that allows them to enroll their kids in public schools without vaccinating them. Not surprisingly, it's in California that many of the recent outbreaks have begun.
No matter how much you may worry about the safety of vaccines -- a worry debunked by every single legitimate scientific study that has been conducted on the subject -- you can take some actions to protect your children (and other children in your community) from pertussis. Perhaps the most useful tool, alongside vaccinating children, is vaccinating adults against the disease -- especially those who will come into contact with newborns and young infants. The March of Dimes reports that up to 80 percent of babies with whooping cough caught it from a family member, so all new parents and other caregivers of newborns should talk to their doctors about getting vaccinated against this most preventable killer of young children.