One Infant Dies from Whooping Cough; Unvaccinated and Political Officials Responsible

A 2-month-old infant died from whooping cough (pertussis) yesterday in New Mexico. It’s unclear how the child was exposed to the disease. It had been vaccinated with its first dose of vaccine, usually given at 2, 4, and 6 months, and then later in childhood several times as well. Recently the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has recommended that adults be re-vaccinated for pertussis when they get their tetanus and diphtheria booster shots as well.

Pertussis vaccine is very effective, but immunity wanes after 4-20 years (depending on age of the individual, number of booster shots, etc.). Herd immunity for pertussis requires a high vaccination rate – in the 92-94% range. Since vaccine efficacy is somewhere between 85% and 95% (depending on the study you read), if herd immunity is not reached even those vaccinated (but not with effective immunity) are vulnerable.

Before vaccines were available, for example “from 1926 to 1930, there were 36,013 pertussis-related deaths in the United States. The average death rates from 1940 to 1948 per 100,000 population per year were 64 in children less than 1 year old, 6.4 in those 1–4 years of age, and 0.2 in those 5–14 years of age. More than 90% of the reported pertussis cases occurred in children less than 10 years of age, with about 10% of those in children less than 1 year of age.” (Cherry, 2007) Since vaccination has become available, death rates have dropped to less than 1 per 100,000 population.

The tragedy here is not solely the one New Mexico infant’s life (which I don’t mean to minimize with this commentary). The tragedy is that these deaths are preventable. Now, I’m not one to attribute blame for many things – I find it doesn’t do much good to concentrate on who did something, but more to look at why it happened and how we can correct the situation, including preventing deaths in the future. But in this case it seems clear to me that we have blame to apportion in two arenas: 1. those who don’t vaccinate their children or get their own vaccinations, and 2. our politicians who skimp on public health resources.

1. The unvaccinated are responsible for the death of this infant.
Parents who are irrationally fearful of getting their children vaccinated reduce the population vaccination rates and therefore herd immunity is not obtained. Similarly, adults who don’t get their booster shots are as culpable.

Because immunity is not 100% obtained by 100% of the population being vaccinated, some individuals will be vulnerable to getting pertusis. The only way to prevent those vaccine failures from getting the disease is for the population to reach its herd immunity, requiring at least 94% of the population being vaccinated. Those who don’t get vaccinated (aside from those who have justifiable medical reasons like compromised immune systems from cancer or immune deficiencies) are reducing the probability of herd immunity. They are, in essence, freeloaders – thinking they can avoid the disease while abdicating their responsibility to prevent it for themselves or others.

2. Our state and local politicians (and federal to some extent) are responsible for the death of this infant.
Local and state health departments have been devastated with the reduction in financing during this recession. They have lost 15-25% of their personnel, had to reduce or eliminate 33% of their programs, and have had significant morale problems. They are asked to perform almost all of the functions they were doing before 2008 with many fewer resources. This impacts vaccination rates and surveillance capabilities.

It’s always difficult to point the finger at one fiscal cut and say “that caused this infant’s death.” That’s because people don’t attribute the same kind of cause and effect from indistinct dollars (even if guided to certain programs) and unidentified lives in the community. But there are plenty of philosophical reasons to claim that there is no difference between identified and unidentified lives when it comes to health care expenditures. (Harvard’s Program in Ethics and Health had a 2-day conference on this topic last month.)

But politicians who self-righteously defend program cuts while simultaneously decrying the ineffectiveness of our health care system or public health system are as culpable as freeloading parents who don’t get their children vaccinated, or adults who aren’t re-vaccinated. And now they want to do it again: cutting the Prevention and Public Health Trust Fund to reduce interest rates on college loans.

What about you – are you up-to-date on your booster shot for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertusis? If you are over 60 have you gotten your shingles and pneumococcal vaccines?


A couple of days after I first posted this item it came to light that the state of Washington declared a pertussis epidemic on April 3rd. Over 1280 cases have been reported as of May 11. The governor of WA “announced the state is putting $90,000 into a public awareness campaign and diverting some federal money to pay for 27,000 doses of vaccine.” Where was the governor in preventing the epidemic in the first place? This gets back to the old question: “Prevention vs. Treatment: What’s the right balance?” Unfortunately, this is another example of prevention not getting its due when it could have been more effective – before the epidemic occurred.

Second addendum:
See the NY Times article today about this outbreak. Here’s the particularly relevant paragraph:

Here in Skagit County, about an hour’s drive north of Seattle — the hardest-hit corner of the state, based on pertussis cases per capita — the local Public Health Department has half the staff it did in 2008. Preventive care programs, intended to keep people healthy, are mostly gone.

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  • christopher mcdermott  On May 12, 2012 at 7:36 am

    The use of historical experience from the USA was helpful in this article. I also want to point out that because so many Americans are jobless, AND lack health insurance even if they hold some jobs, that people are skimping on health care. So if it takes a bit of doing to find a public health clinic – now that so many have been closed or shuttered as Haley points out, but going to a private doctor – as most americans do who are employed AND have insurance – is just not going to happen. So we need to add our inability to think about all of our citizens and be inclusive – as one more culprit in this sad story.

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