Editorial: Let’s work together to guard against a pertussis outbreak

We urge Vashon Island parents to vaccinate their children for pertussis, a highly contagious bacterial disease that can prove deadly for small children.

We realize that many of those who opt not to immunize their children do so because of their concerns about the side effects of vaccinations. And to some degree, their concerns are understandable: Pharmaceutical companies in this country have, on occasion, behaved insidiously, funding studies that promote their drugs, withholding needed medications from developing countries and raking in huge profits.  

But nearly every study exploring long-simmering concerns about the vaccine used for pertussis have failed to find a causal connection between the shot and childhood seizures, a frightening disorder some thought was brought on by the vaccination. Indeed, after years of anecdotal reports and a questionable TV documentary about the scare, the Journal of American Medical Association declared the issue a “myth” and “nonsense.”

Meanwhile, the disease appears to be on the rise. Reports from across the country show localized outbreaks that have public health officials concerned — natural cycles in the disease but still, overall, a general increase, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

And let’s be clear: Whooping cough is a horrific disease. Children with pertussis have a decreased ability to cough up respiratory secretions, developing a thick mucus in their windpipe that triggers increasingly intense coughing spells. The name comes from the impact of the cough: A child with the disease will sometimes cough several times before breathing in — “whooping” when they finally get a breath.

It’s also highly contagious. According to the National Network for Immunization Information, pertussis will develop in 90 percent of unvaccinated children living with someone with pertussis and in 50 to 80 percent of unvaccinated children who attend school or daycare with someone with pertussis. Approximately 50 out of every 10,000 people who develop pertussis die from the disease. Infants too young to be immunized are at particular risk.

Families have had the luxury of choosing not to vaccinate in this country in large part because of the number of other families that decide to vaccinate. With pertussis, if a community has a 90 percent vaccination rate, the “herd,” so to speak, is protected; the 10 percent not vaccinated can live within that herd safe from the disease because an outbreak is unlikely.

But on Vashon, which remains one of the state’s most under-immunized areas, the vaccination rate for pertussis at Chautauqua Elementary School is now 85 percent. Some worry we’re vulnerable to an outbreak. 

Interestingly, Vashon is home to Dr. Bill Foege, one of the world’s leading figures in the eradication of smallpox and a passionate spokesperson for the importance of vaccinations. Indeed, Foege, like other public health officials, believes parents should think of vaccinations as a social contract, an act one takes not only to protect one’s own children but to help safeguard the entire community.

We urge Islanders who opt not to vaccinate to think hard about their decision and its potential impact on their own children and those of others, especially infants too young to be immunized. The risk they’re taking could be a considerable one.

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