Whooping Cough Runs Amok in Washington — A Very Scary Graph

As I’ve been pushing my own legislators here in Vermont to close the big fat public health pothole called the ‘philosophical exemption,’ I often ask them to pay attention to the pertussis outbreak in Washington State. So I hope they’ll take note of Phil Plait’s update over at Bad Astronomy:

This is one of the scariest graphs I’ve seen in a long time.

This plot, from the CDC, shows probable and confirmed cases of pertussis – whooping cough – in the state of Washington from 2011 through June 2012. Last year’s numbers are the short, light-blue-grey rectangles, and this year’s are the dark blue. The plot is by week, so you can see the 2011 numbers slowly growing across the year; then this year’s numbers suddenly taking a huge leap upward. They are reporting the new rate as 13 times larger than last year. Note that 83% of these cases have been confirmed as being pertussis, while 17% are probable. The drop in recent weeks is due to a lag in complete reporting of cases.

Got that? There are 13 times as many people – more than 2500 in total so far – getting pertussis right now as there were last year at this time in Washington.

Some of this increase may be attributable to the pertussis bacterium growing a resistance to the vaccine and booster. However, it’s curious that Washington state has seen such a large jump; the incidence of pertussis overall in that state is nine times higher than the national average.

The really scary part is the possibility that this year’s graph (the tall bars) will rise through the season in the same way last year’s graph (the shorter gray bars) did as the year progressed. It’s vital to note that this is a 13-fold jump from last year. What does this tell us? When our vaccination levels drop enough to allow outbreaks, we won’t necessarily get the slow-motion, gentle warning we’d ideally want. Epidemics don’t work that way; they’re not polite, and in many cases, certain factors can line up to create a tipping point beyond which the numbers balloon. The graph above shows how fast things can get ugly.

You should read the whole thing at Bad Astronomy — a must-read generally. But in case you don’t go, DO heed Plait’s take-home:

Pertussis is a terrible, terrible disease. It puts infants at grave risk of dying, and eight infants so far this year have been killed by pertussis in the US. Even if it doesn’t kill them, it’s a horrible thing to put them through.

Vaccines save lives. Talk to your board-certified doctor and find out if you need one, or a booster.I did, and my whole family is up-to-date with their vaccinations. I refuse to be a part of spreading a disease that can kill anyone, let alone babies, and I refuse to be silent about it.

See: Washington pertussis outbreak is very, very bad

and some of Phil’s other links:

– Not vaccinated? No kisses!

– Whooping cough outbreak in Boulder

– Pertussis can kill, and you can help stop it

– Pertussis and measles are coming back

4 responses

  1. I found out I had pertussis about two months ago. I thought I’d been vaccinated but discovered, the hard way, that the vaccine doesn’t last forever. It is a terrible thing to have had. I sincerely hope I don’t get it again.

    The problem with pertussis is that, at least in my case as an adult, it starts out as normal sort of cough. I didn’t have a fever, aches, runny nose nothing but a cough. Then one morning I got out of bed and started coughing uncontrollably to the point where my throat closed and I couldn’t breath. As I tried to suck air in it finally started to come in retching breaths with a loud whooping noise. I got myself to the doctor and she said pertussis right away just from the description. An antibiotic cleared up the infection so I wasn’t contagious and could go to work. The problem is that for two months now I’ve been having coughing fits. The not being able to breathe happened about once a day at the start but not at all now. At one point I tore a muscle in my chest. No fun. In some parts of the world this is called the cough of a hundred days. So I’ve another month to go, maybe.

    Anyway, the point I’m trying to get across is, like many of these diseases, by the time that you know you’ve got it the damage is done and it’s too late. As I know to my cost vaccination isn’t perfect but it cuts down the odds and that’s worth it!

  2. I’m becoming somewhat cynical toward humanity’s ability to think things thru. Adding vaccines to the rest of the list of faith based fact discussions just causes me to stand here beside myself in awe and amazement.
    And I quote. “But don’t you think we should feel good about our medical decisions and not just base them on facts?” (true conversation).

  3. I can’t quite see the clear cause and effect here. Adults haven’t gotten booster shots in 10, 20, 30, 40 or even 50 years in most cases. And there is no long-lasting immunity from this shot. Recent news stories have teens catching pertussis within two or three years of getting a booster vaccine. Another story had vaccinated children coming down with pertussis at age 8 (I know one such case personally) after having their 5th booster at age 5.

    According to the CDC the vaccination rate for boosters among adults is 8%. The exemption rate (which isn’t necessarily exemptions to every vaccine) among school children entering kindergarten in Washington State is perhaps 5%.

    So you are claiming that the 5% exempted children are the main cause of this epidemic? Rather than the 92% of adults who have no immunity.

    There are two other obvious possibilities:

    1) We’ve been having huge numbers of cases of pertussis all along in adults whose resistance to pertussis disappeared and they were misdiagnosed as other stuff. After a few weeks the pertussis bacteria isn’t present any longer and a test will turn up negative, so this wouldn’t actually be all that tricky if people weren’t aware that it was going around.


    2) The bacteria has changed, the vaccine is even less effective than it used to be and the huge outbreaks are due to vaccine failure, not due to a small number of children opting out.

    There were signs of vaccine failure starting way back in 1999 (earliest I heard about it, anyway), but according to the CDC the increase in whooping cough cases began in the 1980s.

    This whole noise about whooping cough looks to me like an epidemic in search of a scapegoat.

    Do some more research. There is a lot of interesting info about this illness and it isn’t as simple as vaccines protecting us and non-vaccines killing us all.

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