What’s Causing the Whooping Cough Epidemic?

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is back, and it’s unlikely to go away soon. As parents, we have been warned of the dangers of whooping cough, especially to young children.

Over 100,000 Americans, including 32 babies, have been infected by an epidemic of whooping cough in the last four years. It would be convenient to blame the outbreak on parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, but they aren’t the cause. Inadequate protection from vaccines are the real problem.

Surprisingly, the current whooping cough vaccines haven’t been investigated, and there has been no cry for a fast creation of a substitute vaccine.  Whooping cough’s new revival has not received the public scrutiny or attention it deserves.  In contrast, the recent measles outbreak that began at Disneyland and lasted for a month resulted in congressional hearings.  What gives?

Skepticism fuels the anti-vaccine movement

Right now, there is no end in sight for the whooping cough epidemic.

Epidemiologist Tami Hilger Skoff, from the Meningitis and Vaccine Preventable Diseases Branch of the CDC, admits better vaccines are necessary. She said that there is still, however, a lot to learn.  This fuels those who denounce vaccines and creates public relation nightmares for health officials.

Measles was supposedly eradicated in the Unites States in 2000, but whooping cough has never been officially considered to be abolished. Rates of infection have fallen continuously since the 1940s after the initial vaccine for it was created.

New whooping cough vaccines fall short

Vaccines against whooping cough were reformulated before the turn of the 21st century. New cases increased while the rate of vaccinations remained stable. Researchers discovered that the new vaccines did not defend against the disease as well.  Why?  Because mutations in the whooping cough bacteria have effectively made the newer vaccines inert.

There have been more than 10,000 cases of whooping cough annually since 2002. The current outbreaks are not as deadly as past epidemics, but in 2011, 11 babies died. A staggering 48,000+ cases were reported in 2012. This was the greatest number since the 1950s.

The CDC said that during 2013 and 2014 there were slightly less than 30,000 cases. California had the largest outbreak with 10,000 cases last year.

Whooping cough makes it difficult to breathe. It can produce a distinctive whooping sound, but not everyone who has it coughs. Infants can die from suffocation without ever coughing. Adults will usually have a strong cough for many months.

Unvaccinated people suffer the most. Frequently, infants who are too young to be vaccinated die. Many Americans who assumed they were protected are now contracting the cough, including teens and tweens.

Teenagers who were vaccinated with newer vaccines when they were infants are far more likely to be afflicted than those who were vaccinated before the newer vaccines were developed.

Since comparison trials of new vaccines could take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the current emphasis is to protect babies by vaccinating their mothers during their third trimester of pregnancy.


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