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California’s Whooping Cough Epidemic

Are you aware that we’re in the midst of a serious whooping cough epidemic?  Nearly 1500 cases have been reported in California so far this year, a 5 fold increase from last year; and many more incidents are under investigation. With months of warm, infection conducive weather ahead, we’re on track to have the worst occurrence of this highly contagious disease in 50 years. Whooping cough strikes children, particularly infants, the hardest.  Six infants have, in fact, died this year.  The symptoms resemble a cold accompanied by a persistent cough but the symptoms are more sever and can last for months.

One of my New York cousins, here last week for a visit, admitted that she was wary about coming, having been advised by a travel agent that California was in the midst of an epidemic. I was shocked!  She said it was all over the east coast media.    I learned later that, in the U.S., only South Carolina comes even close to the infection rate we’re having here this year.

Whooping cough, called that by its distinct cough, is Pertussis in medical parlance.  You can actually hear the characteristic ‘whooping’ sound of the cough on the WebMD website. It becomes so persistent that it can cause broken blood vessels in the face, eyes and even the brain.  Infants can suffocate, unable to get enough air between coughing bouts.   Protection from it comes from the DTaP or Tdap vaccine which covers diphtheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis.  (It is not available in a stand-alone form.)

The two areas affected most by the whooping cough epidemic in California are Marin County and the Central Valley.   Given the lower income and education levels of a large immigrant population in the Central Valley, higher incidences there aren’t surprising.  But why Marin County?

California law requires children to be vaccinated for childhood diseases before entering kindergarten.  However, parents can opt out by claiming a ‘personal belief’ exemption.  In recent years, various people and organizations have claimed that vaccines contribute to autism and other diseases.  Enter the words ‘vaccine’ and ‘danger’ in any internet search and a plentitude of web sites will be listed alleging the perils of vaccinations.  Actually, there are inoculation risks, but they are temporary and minor: sore arms or slight fever.   But there’s evidence to believe  young, affluent, well-educated people are most apt to believe vaccinations are dangerous and would opt out of immunizations for their children for that reason.  State officials  attribute this as the reason Marin County has such a high incidence of whooping cough.   Public health experts maintain that an immunization rate of 92 -94% is necessary in any child population to keep the disease from spreading. That’s not happening in Marin County or in the Central Valley or for that matter in many parts of California which is why there is so much concern.

Because of epidemic rates throughout the state and whooping cough’s highly contagious nature, the California Department of Public Health has advised that pregnant women and adults and older children who have regular contact with babies should get vaccinated as well as all infants.  Where can we go for immunization?   Many health insurance plans already cover infant vaccinations.  In addition, many counties have vaccination programs available.  Even without government immunization programs or insurance, the vaccine seems to be affordable for most.  My (Orange County) doctor charges $55 for shots for patients without insurance.  Hopefully, we’ll get this old childhood disease under control again.

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