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Whooping cough is dangerous

Over the past few weeks, I’ve discussed numerous outbreaks of whooping cough, or Bordetella pertussis (or just pertussis) throughout the US, Canada, England and Australia. For those individuals who think that whooping cough has either disappeared or is not dangerous, well, it’s time to disabuse anyone of that particular notion.

2012 (the year, not the silly Mayan Calendar) pertussis outbreaks

These are just the more notable outbreaks. According to the CDC, there were over 27,000 whooping cough cases in the US in 2010 (and that number is going to be small compared to 2012’s numbers). And, worldwide, there are 30-50 million cases of pertussis and about 300,000 deaths per year. It is not a disease to be treated lightly.

Risks from whooping cough (all stats are from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Of infants younger than 1 year of age who get pertussis, more than half must be hospitalized. The younger the infant, the more likely treatment in the hospital will be needed. Of those infants who are hospitalized with pertussis about:

  • 1 in 5 get pneumonia (lung infection)
  • 1 in 100 will have convulsions (violent, uncontrolled shaking)
  • Half will have apnea (slowed or stopped breathing)
  • 1 in 300 will have encephalopathy (disease of the brain)
  • 1 in 100 will die

Teens and adults can also get complications from pertussis, though they are usually less serious than in children, especially if they had been vaccinated. Usually, complications in this age group are often caused by the cough itself. In one study, less than 5% of teens and adults with pertussis were hospitalized. Pneumonia (lung infection) was diagnosed in 2% of those patients. The most common complications in another study of adults with pertussis were:

  • Weight loss (33%)
  • Loss of bladder control (28%)
  • Passing out (6%)
  • Rib fractures from severe coughing (4%)

So if anyone thinks this is an innocuous disease, well they’d be wrong. It’s not without serious consequences, up to and including death.

It makes you wonder why there isn’t something we could do about this disease. You’d think that science would be able to prevent it. Oh wait, there is a way, and it’s called a vaccine. The DTaP vaccine (for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) is the way to prevent whooping cough (and diphtheria and tetanus, both dangerous in their own right). 

The vaccine is over 85% effective in preventing a serious infectious disease. Since the introduction of the vaccine, diphtheria and tetanus cases have dropped by 99%. And whooping cough has dropped by 92%. And even then, people don’t want to vaccinate their kids. But why?

Antivaccine lunatics think that vaccines are harmful

  • All medical procedures, whether taking an over-the-counter pain reliever or having surgery to remove a tumor, has some amount of risk or side-effects. For the DTaP vaccine, there are some side effects, mostly minor, and even those may not be a result of the vaccine itself. 
  • An extremely large study, with over 13,000 patients, it can find even small effects, “found no evidence for an increased risk for neurologic, hematologic, allergic events, or new onset of chronic illnesses among adolescents vaccinated with Tdap.”
  • In a Korean clinical trial, published in a high impact peer-reviewed journal, found that “No serious adverse effects were noted, and most adverse effects resolved without treatment. The immunogenicity against each antigen was high in patients who were interchangeably vaccinated for DTaP.”

There are a lot more, but those are the most recent, and pretty much shut the door on the old “vaccines cause XYZ” myth. 

So what can we can conclude here. First, there are more outbreaks of whooping cough because fewer people are getting vaccinated or updating vaccinations. Second, whooping cough can be dangerous to adults and children. Third, DTaP vaccine prevent whooping cough. Fourth, aside from a very few and minor side effects, there is nothing dangerous about the vaccine.

Conclusion: vaccines save lives.

Michael Simpson

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