Health officials in California suspect that at least in part, the current pertussis epidemic stems from parents opting out of having their children immunized. A recent study published in the October issue of Pediatrics shows that those living in areas with a high number of exemption requests were 2.5 times more likely to become ill. Both pertussis out breaks and exemptions were the highest in more affluent and highly educated neighborhoods.
Complicating the issue is that current immunizations do not protect an individual for life.
Community Immunity Weakened
According to the health officials, communities with less than a 95% immunized population run the risk of weakening “herd immunity,” referring to the protection afforded those who haven’t been vaccinated living in a community where the vast majority of citizens are immunized. This occurs because any outbreak of the illness is contained when the population is immunized. Below is an illustration depicting various immunization levels within a community provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases:
In 2010, California health officials announced that pertussis outbreaks had reached epidemic proportions. Since then 9,120 individuals have been diagnosed with the disease; 10 patients, all infants, have died from the disease.
Pertussis, or whooping cough is caused by a bacteria that infects the pharynx (top of the throat) where it meets the nasal passage of the nose.
Curiously, the first stages of pertussis raise no red flags — the first 1 to 2 weeks symptoms are no more severe than a runny nose and cough. If a patient runs a fever, it’s typically low grade. However, after two weeks patients experience severe fits of coughing until the lungs are depleted of air; a high pitched “whooping” sound occurs as the patient inhales to replenish the lungs with oxygen.
Although babies are particularly vulnerable to the disease, they may not experience severe coughing – instead, they simply stop breathing because of a disruption of their breathing patterns.
Infants receive their first pertussis vaccination at the age of two months, but are not adequately protected from the disease until the third round is given at six months of age.