In our cover story last year on vaccine "refusers," we wrote about a Vashon Island mom who suggested having "pertussis parties" as a way to develop natural immunity to the disease. Well, if that strategy weren't so dangerous, now would be the time because a pertussis "epidemic" is upon us.
More than a quarter of statewide cases last year occurred in one county alone: Snohomish. That's 220 cases for a county that just the year before had 25--an almost tenfold increase. That's why public health officials there have started to use the "e" word.
Why Snohomish? Snohomish Health District spokesperson Suzanne Pate didn't really have an answer. But it's worth noting that the county has an unusually large number of parents who opt their kids out of vaccination. Among kindergarteners, 7.8 percent were not fully immunized in the 2010-11 school year. That's higher than the state average of around 6 percent, which is in itself the highest state "exemption rate" in the country. (See exemption rates by county.)
As you might expect from the statewide rate, Snohomish is not the only county hit. Public Health Seattle & King County issued a health alert this week about the rising pertussis rate it is seeing. There was a particular spike in December, when nearly a quarter of the year's 97 cases occurred, and January is looking possibly even more alarming. Four infants have already come down with pertussis in the last couple weeks, according to Jeff Duchin, chief of communicable disease epidemiology and immunization for King's Public Health.
With their tiny lungs, infants are endangered most by whooping cough. In Snohomish, one newborn died last year from the disease (pictured above), prompting a relative to launch a Facebook page devoted to pertussis awareness and immunization.
Refusers, who believe many vaccines cause more harm than good, like to point out that newborns are too young for the DTaP vaccine that protects against it (See the recommended vaccine schedule). So, they say, there's no point talking about infant deaths as an argument for immunization.
But infants catch the disease from others, including their parents--and it's those people who public health officials want to immunize. In fact, officials in recent years have been urging even immunized adults to get a booster shot, because the vaccine's protection wears off. "Many adults don't even think about it," Duchin says.
In one sense, then, the refusers are right: health officials are expansionist in their vaccination designs on the world. But when infants start dying--and you've got no solid proof of vaccines' supposed dangers--you might want to go along with the program.