Whooping cough in California: deaths caused by the anti-vaccination movement

California is suffering the worst epidemic of pertussis, or whooping cough, in 60 years, with over 5,200 cases already, the most since 1950. Nine babies have died, all of them too young to receive the vaccine. Michigan is also reporting a serious outbreak, with over 600 cases so far this year. The deaths of the infants in California are tragic, and what’s more tragic is that some of them almost certainly could have been prevented if more people had been vaccinated.

The pertussis vaccine, called DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) has been responsible for a dramatic drop in whooping cough in recent decades. It isn't 100% effective, but its effectiveness relies in part on “herd immunity”: if enough people are immune to the bacteria, then even if someone gets sick, the disease cannot easily spread through the community. This is especially true for very young infants, who are too young to be vaccinated and whose immune systems are not yet strong enough to defeat the bacteria on their own.

Unfortunately, it’s not a coincidence that California is the center of the new pertussis epidemic. Vaccination rates among adults in California have been dropping in recent years, largely due to the influence of anti-vaccination zealots such as Jenny McCarthy and groups such as Age of Autism. Anti-vaccination sentiments seem to strike a chord with relatively well-educated segments of the population – the same people who favor organic food and want to use “natural” products as much as possible. Anti-vaxers appeal to this group by arguing that vaccines are unnatural, and that the body’s own immune system can be “boosted” by various natural treatments. Appealing though this may sound, it has no basis in science. California makes it easy for parents to claim exemptions from the required vaccinations for their children, and exemptions have more than doubled since 1997, according to the L.A. Times.

Among the anti-vaccinationists who deserve blame for the current pertussis outbreak is “Dr. Bob” Sears, a kindler, gentler anti-vaxer who claims (like many of them) to be in favor of vaccines, but only under his own, unscientific terms. He stated flatly in the Huffington Post (a hotbed of medical misinformation) recently that pregnant women should not get the DTaP vaccine. But as Dr. Paul Offit tells us in a tragic story, refusing the vaccine can lead directly to the death of an infant. Dr. Bob is just wrong. I should add that Sears has written two books on vaccines and autism, promoting his misguided “alternative” vaccine schedule (see this article in Pediatrics about that) and his rather naive theories about the rise in autism diagnoses.

Everyone should have their children vaccinated. On top of that, in order to maintain herd immunity, most of us should get the pertussis booster shot if we haven’t had one in the last ten years. That’s what vaccine expert Paul Offit recommends, and I’m planning to follow his advice myself. It won’t take long, and it might save a life.


  1. These nutter antivaxers should be allowed their free choice, sure. But then they should be isolated from the rest of us who wish to exist in a shared-risk/shared-benefit society of rational people. Vote them off the island.

  2. DrugMonkey, I think I would prefer the be voted ONTO an Island. Thankfully, living in the Southern Hemisphere this is no where near as extreme as what is happening in California. I feel sad for those parents who suffer with that regret over their stupidity not to vaccinate their children who are now dead.


  3. this is bollocks. can you provide accurate information as to which infants have died - those from well informed, educated families who eat quality food, or those from somewhere else? keep your big pharma vaccine touting to yourself otherwise!

    1. Seriously! Let's call these families up and ask them, "Hey so your dead child. Was he or she treated well. Were they healthy? Or did you feed them crap?" Because let's be honest here: we all really know what's going on. Poor diets for infants = susceptibility to infection. No wait, better yet: wealthy families = safe from infection.

      Big Pharma is a conspiracy to make money. It is in no way made up of men and women practiced in the field of biology working out ways to save peoples lives from infectious diseases. It didn't become big pharma through the development of the chemical process to produce penicillin on a large scale to combat infections! Bollocks to it all!

      ^^ Sarcasm ^^ ... just in case you're extremely daft.

  4. Society has gotten here by way of working together. To continue on into the future we should still work together. I do not thing any of us are really working against each other right now unless you consider pollution. A healthy average person does not wish to harm anyone else.

    Thus it is in societies best interest, in terms of perpetuation to recognize certain limitations exist and threaten our existence. This is a preventable issue and can be dealt with rationally.

    We used to allow heavy corporal punishment of children and marrying children at an early age. Now we don't, enforcing vaccination is another effort that is positive and is usually low risk.

    You should be skeptical of any vaccine but the empirical evidence so far is positive.

  5. Why hasn't anyone bothered to ask the question: WHY is the pertussis vaccine, in particular, one that so many have turned down?? Were there problems with it in the past? Therein lies your answer!! My brother is 25 and brain damaged from that vaccine, after he had it and went into anaphalactic shock. And not for nothing, but 9 babies versus the THOUSANDS that have gotten it, isn't exactly a large statistic. There's still a VERY high rate of survival (what, 99%??) Not enough for me to want to get my child the vaccine and risk what my family has gone through - TWICE.

  6. Steve,

    Do you think that the Hep B vaccine should be given to newborns?


  7. So, you didn't want to vaccinate your child because of the "risk" of him getting autism?

    Well, good news, now he's dead.

  8. Quote: "can you provide accurate information as to which infants have died - those from well informed, educated families who eat quality food, or those from somewhere else"

    I'm pretty sure that pertussis does not noticeably respond to Whole Foods organic produce.

  9. The anti-vax crowd truly believe that the"immune Support" shelf at their local health food store is the answer to preventing all contagious disease.
    Why will they take expensive, untested substances that are on the honor system as far as purity- and yet complain about "Big Pharma" is beyond me.

  10. "can you provide accurate information as to which infants have died - those from well informed, educated families who eat quality food, or those from somewhere else"

    If you had bothered actually reading the article in its entirety then you would have known that the infants that died were too young to get the vaccine and caught the disease as a result of other people not getting vaccinated. Also as someone who has had whooping cough in the past I cannot tell you how thankful I was I was vaccinated when younger, my body only had a limited immunity left but that immunity made it so instead of a really life threatening disease I just had an incredibly irritating cough for about a month. In addition due to that vaccine no one else around me got sick.

  11. Your "Big Pharma" would probably want you and your baby be sick. hospitalized and pay thousands dollars of hospital bill including in-patient medicine instead of getting your money just for much cheaper vaccines.

    You can create as many conspiracy theories as you want. But if you look at the "evidence", I mean the data, the answer is so clear.

    One doctor who wanted to replace the MMR vaccine with his own alternative created a bogus study only on 9 autistic children. It's long proven that he had a conflict of interest and his study results could never be repeated even with studies run on thousands of children. And now people are still dying because that f..king money seeking Wakefield guy wanted to be rich. And some idiots are still dying/killing others just because they don't want their few bucks end up in that "big pharma"s pocket.

    Good job people, let your fears pumped-up by manipulators, close your eyes to the reality let your fear kill people and justify your murder saying that "vaccines are not proven to be safe" regardless the plenty of data which says so.

    Keep on killing!!!

  12. I'm not against vaccines in general but there are certain ones that while the sicknesses they prevent are something you want to be vaccinated against, the other things in the vaccine are certainly not desirable. Many vaccines contain mercury as a preservative and mercury is toxic and cumulative. While the link between vaccines and autism is incredibly weak, mercury isn't something you want in your body if you can avoid it, hence why they recommend pregnant women not consume more than prescribed amounts of canned tuna, because of the mercury content. And for low income families that receive WIC food assistance, guess what is a staple item for children: canned tuna. So combine the cumulative exposure of children to mercury from dietary and medical sources and there are reasonable reasons why some people would want to avoid vaccines.

    Also, as one commenter pointed out. The survival rate for Whooping Cough is really high. This is because it can be treated with antibiotics, its very treatable and only infants, who are too young to receive the vaccine, are actually at any heightened risk. The idea with why we administer the DTaP vaccine is that by decreasing the number of cases of Whooping Cough in the general population you decrease the number of infants and other sensitive patients who may be exposed to the disease. While this is a good idea, the actual number of deaths are not that significant, unless you are the unlucky parent of an infant who dies. But if you are in that boat, rationality and statistics are irrelevant.

    Many anti-vaccination people are crazy. Anyone who avoids all vaccines is crazy. But there are good reasons why some people choose to avoid vaccines. I have never had a flu shot in my life, neither have any of my kids. Getting the flu just isn't a big enough deal to risk the potential complications that could come, especially knowing that all my kids have a broad range of allergies and knowing what is in vaccines can be a tricky thing to find out.

  13. "why they recommend pregnant women not consume more than prescribed amounts of canned tuna, because of the mercury content."

    Well, in one vaccine, there is less mercury than one canned tuna. If it was really a big threat, I guess they'll suggest to not eat even one canned, no? It's not like people were getting vaccine every weak...


  14. Anonymous: you wrote "So combine the cumulative exposure of children to mercury from dietary and medical sources and there are reasonable reasons why some people would want to avoid vaccines."

    This is just wrong. You also assert that "many vaccines contain mercury", which is also wrong. In the U.S., thimerosal was removed from all childhood vaccines, including DTaP, years ago. It is in *some* but not all influenza vaccines, but these are not part of the required schedule.

    However you are wrong on another count too: the amount of mercury in your diet (from tuna and other sources) FAR exceeds the mercury in thimerosal, even if you had dozens of shots with thimerosal-preserved vaccines. Furthermore, the form of mercury in thimerosal is different from environmental mercury (from tuna, salmon, etc), and the thimerosal form is eliminated from the body far more quickly. BUT it isn't used in vaccines anyway, so the whole argument is just irrelevant.

    "Reasonable reasons" have to be based on facts. You apparently have been given misinformation, which (alas) is very, very easy to get from many anti-vaccination sites.

  15. The "enormous" amount of mercury in a single dose of vaccine (one that does contain mercury, most don't anymore) corresponds to one normal portions of FISH. You know, the fish you had for dinner the other day.

    so have the vaccine and just dont eat fish that week and you are at break-even if you are so worried about the mercury.

  16. Airplanes crash and some people die, so we should not fly.
    Cars crash and some people die, so we should not drive.
    People vaccinate and some people die, so we should not vaccinate.
    Good thinking!

  17. Pseudoscience is right. Wow. I haven't seen this many ridiculous comments in one place since the bathroom walls of my HS. Has anyone who posted here actually read the manufacturer's insert for these vaccines? They're not 100% effective by any means and there's a little something called vaccine shedding--you should not be around an infant after you've been vaccinated. Can you guess why? You'll give them the infection. So, logically, you can figure out that any child that has been vaccinated can (and does)make others sick. So, all of you geniuses, how do people keep getting sick? Its just a theory, but it holds more water than any of yours! Have you seen the commercials for some of these new wonder drugs? They say right in the commercial, do not get vaccinated with a live virus while you're taking the medication or be around someone who's recently been vaccinated. Wow, I wonder why? maybe because it weakens their immune system AND THEY'LL CATCH the disease from the vaccinated person. So, all of you with your "herd immunity" crap--puzzle on that for a bit. Or you other brilliant minds, how in the heck will an un-vaccinated person make someone sick with a disease that they haven't had injected into their body's? how? anyone? cricket.

  18. The package insert states: The following events are contraindications to administration of any pertussis vaccine, including Tripedia vaccine. Encephalopathy (eg, coma, decreased level of consciousness, prolonged seizures) within 7 days of admininstration of a previous dose of pertussis-containing vaccine that is not attributable to another identifiable cause. Progressive neurologic disorder, including infantile spasms, uncontrolled epilepsy, or progressive encephalopathy. Fever >105 degrees, collapse or shock-like state w/i 48 hours, persistent crying lasting >3 hours, convulsions with or without fever... Still think its safe?

  19. Yes, it is safe. The expected benefit from the vaccine, statistically speaking, is very strongly positive. The risk of disease or death from the illnesses prevented by DTaP is much greater than the risk of adverse effects. That being said, it is hard to show that the risk of adverse effects from anything is zero. For example, crossing the street can kill you.

  20. People who are qualified to be licensed medical practitioners spend many years obtaining sufficient relevent knowledge in pharmacology, chemistry, disease and immunology. People who are not qualified to be licensed medical practitioners do not have this training, are not qualified to practice medicine or advise on medical issues but feel perfectly justified in scaring the public into avoiding vaccinations which avoid suffering and death in the community. They should be charged with the criminal behavior of practising medicine without a license and gagged and/or removed from the community.

  21. Based on the responses here, if I post on vaccination I will not allow commenting. To see the same bullshit ridiculous and insane comments by an army of anonymous fucktwits that were bullshit a decade or more ago. It's impossible to provide information to confused or ignorant individuals when asshats are simply posting whatever crap they want.

    Pharma, duh evul PHARMAAA
    Why we sick....VACCINES DONT WORK
    But the risk of autism. THINK OF THE CHILDREN, I know a child who has autism AND THEY WERE VACCINATED!!!!!!

    These people are give a whole new meaning to horror show.

  22. Ah, Skepticism and "The abuses and distortions of science". This sounds a promising position to assess the bizarre and frequently barbarous practice of infant vaccination but no, just another blindly establishment posting of dark frightening warnings and the tut tutting of people who actually do use objective reasoning. Did any of their children suffer or die from pertussis?
    Look, we've got such well developed systems to interact with other organisms in our shared environment. One of these is the "immune defence system" which most certainly do not fully understand yet try to improve upon using a system stolen from Turkish peasants in the early 19th century by a quack who certainly killed more than he "saved".
    Could you perhaps consider that the excessive reactions of some kids to Pertussis infection might even be due to their prior potentiation by other jabs. Certainly asthma and allergy are both clearly associated with adverse reaction to childhood vaccinations. And we all know about Autism. We did long before Wakefield confused the issue by concentrating only on the MMR jab. He skewed results and gave the establishment a culprit to bring before their "Star Chamber", the UK's General Medical Council.
    As for medics and their tragic tales, well, yes, individual deaths of ones so young are clearly tragic. If we used the approach of disease management by practitioners - who often don't even recognise illnesses to know how to treat sufferers - and more holistic approaches to diet and health promotion we would cut the dead load of chronic illness dramatically. As in "measles is for two weeks but autism is for life".
    Methinks that the Establishment peddles far more Pseudoscience than you are prepared to notice. Shall we talk about "Peer review"? The internal verification system which makes all the same assumptions as the papers it passes and squashes original work?
    Please feel free to respond. I still amazes me the lack of critical appraisal by so many of this crucial subject.

  23. Sorry, I just noticed that my having to rewrite the above posting after losing the first in Cyberspace led to my leaving a bit out . It was:

    To say that I assumed you were aware of the figures showing rapidly declining mortality from CIDs through the 20th century but well before the introduction of widespread vaccination - ie due to improved standards of living, health management etc. I note your citing "Love in the Time of Cholera" in your biog. When were times of cholera worst? That's right, in times of poverty and starvation.
    Are you also aware of the close correlation of increasing infant vaccination load with the rise in chronic childhood illness? Autism follows this well and what of SSPE, first reported in 1948 and only increasing in the 60s and 70s yet blamed on childhood measles infection.

    I also would like to suggest that our immune responses should be pretty much up to scratch by now, being resultant from around four billion years of evolution. That's one of your spheres, isn't it? Mm, mine too.

  24. It seems that people a ready to hate especially people who stray from the herd. Blame is not the answer. My observation is that all the infants were Latino and probably got the disease from an extended family member that may or may not have been born or vaccinated in the USA. I am unclear of how and why the blame is being directed at the counter culture? Also, most American adults were vaccinated as children, but it seems that the vaccinations wear off. I would advice to look deeper and be more critical of the overall facts and reported information. People are free to make many choices in America. We have the freedom to worship and make decisions based on our religious beliefs. The unforgivable and horrible deaths of these infants is terrible. Our freedom of choice in America is beautiful and messy at the same time. Mandating that people all follow a government regime of necessary medical procedures may solve some problems, but take away the very essence of America. In the mean time sympathy and compassion of the complexity may be more helpful than hate and blame. I was shocked that the same writers that were outraged at the deaths showed absolutely no compassion for the writer whose brother had complications from the vaccination. It seems like most writers are posting to vent and hate.

  25. Sending love to those families that lost children.

  26. Second Foundation illustrates a remarkable combination of false claims, innuendo, and logical fallacies. I'll just respond to the hilarious claim that "our immunue responses should be pretty much up to snuff by now." Obviously we have very sophisticated immune systems. However, every virus and bacterium out there continues to evolve, producing new epitopes that are not recognized by our immune system.

    Anonymous above claims that the freedom to refuse vaccination is "the very essence of America." I disagree: I want to be free to go to the store, take the subway, go to school, and generally walk around without fear that someone will infect me with a crippling and possibly deadly virus. Vaccinations provide a remarkable public benefit that enhances our freedom to interact with one another.

  27. I am amused by the Professor's dismissive language. When you have no answers it's the most effective form of comment. However it sure shows we'll make no progress here. That's why I resort to the third person, but it certainly saddens me to see such closed off thinking in academia.

    To reply to the misunderstanding illustrated by his one actual answer, I was talking seriously about the system and not a particular antigenic form. And it is the system that we must promote rather than hijacking it to particular epitopes loaded with carrier chemicals. By such work we harm the capability to respond to and recognise new epitopes.

    Unsourced, I'm afraid, but here's another slant, ex HP:
    "Systemic autoimmunity appears to be the inevitable consequence of over-stimulating the host's immune ‘system’ by repeated immunization with antigen, to the levels that surpass system's self-organized criticality."”

    I'd go with that comment for sure.

    And I've just read the response to our good friend "Anonymous". Please, Sir, if you have an immune system have faith in it. It is not inevitable that to breathe in a microbe is to succumb to that illness. Far, far from it. As you know, you already carry enough bacteria to kill you many times over were it not for your existing and so strong immune system.

    As I said, four billion years of evolution have developed a very sophisticated response SYSTEM. Changing bacterial and viral forms are inevitable and should simply be updating our stored information when we experience them in the wild. Like the subway!

    Yours truly,

    Chris Hemmings from Wales

  28. I understand. Practically speaking, start a petition to change the interpretation of the 1st amendment. Even in a perfect world where everyone would be vaccinated, you could still contract a deadly disease and die.

  29. Not exactly, Anonymous. In an horrendously imperfect World where everyone had been vaccinated against countless "epitopes and antigens" you would still get plagues and have catastrophic levels of chronic illness. Come to think of it, that's pretty much were we are already.

  30. Dear Second Foundation,

    I am on your side. However, I do believe there is truth in many perspectives and that generally even when people disagree they care.I feel like Steve really cares about people's health and safety. I was setting up a hypothetical situation based on Steve's perspective. People are creative and so are bacteria and viruses. I trust there is a balance and that we as humans are trying to create, find or fight it. How do we stay in balance (meaning our health as a human system, as a species and as a planet) with little or no fear? I really think that there is space for science to be creative depending on what questions are asked and what solutions we seek.
    Anyway, best to both of you. I have enjoyed the discussion.

  31. I just returned to re-read this exchange and remain profoundly shocked that a current academic professor can post such astounding comments as the following:

    "Anonymous above claims that the freedom to refuse vaccination is "the very essence of America." I disagree: I want to be free to go to the store, take the subway, go to school, and generally walk around without fear that someone will infect me with a crippling and possibly deadly virus. Vaccinations provide a remarkable public benefit that enhances our freedom to interact with one another."

    OK, it's your blog but really do you walk through your life frightened of that virus lingering around the next street corner that might jump out and infect you? Like some kind of invisible mugger or maybe the active combat unit of some evil army. They're just part of the natural eco-system. Chill out and live in the real world. It's kinda nice out here and your world sounds like Hell.

  32. Anonymous:

    Thanks for the information about the package insert - guess we agree that Big Pharma isn't covering anything up - I'll keep that in mind the next time some fruitcake claims that it is.


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