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.