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As Whooping Cough Rebounds in U.S., Infants at Greatest Risk

August 22, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As the worst whooping cough outbreak in more than half a century grips the U.S., health officials are saying that most adults and teens are woefully under-vaccinated. Health correspondent Betty Ann Bowers explores what's behind the resurgence and its potential consequence for those who can't be vaccinated: newborns.

GWEN IFILL: Now: the troubling return of an old disease that can be deadly to the youngest of children.

NewsHour health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser reports.

BOY: Whooping cough shots!

BOY: Whooping cough!

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In Washington State, whooping cough is now something to stand on the corner and shout about, because the state is in the grips of the worst epidemic in half-a-century.

Health officials in Everett are so concerned that on a recent Tuesday night they held a free clinic to get as many people vaccinated as possible. Whooping cough’s official name is pertussis, but whatever you call it, the disease is making a comeback across the country.

REAR ADMIRAL DR. ANNE SCHUCHAT, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: This year is a record year.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Anne Schuchat is the Centers for Disease Control’s top immunization official.

DR. ANNE SCHUCHAT: We have had about 21,000 cases, which is more than twice what we had last year by this time. In fact, we’re on track to be at a 50-year high for pertussis this year.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So far, whooping cough has claimed 13 lives, all of them babies.

Washington state has one of the highest number of cases in the nation, along with Wisconsin, Minnesota and New York.

The disease is known for the dramatic whooping noise its victims make as they try to catch their breath after coughing spells. It can often lead to cracked ribs, pneumonia, even death.

A vaccine was developed more than 50 years ago, but it caused so many bad side effects that a new one was introduced in the 1990s. It’s called DTaP. But recently, the CDC discovered a troubling trend. Teenagers who had been inoculated against whooping cough were getting sick. In all, there have been 9,000 adolescent cases this year.

DR. ANNE SCHUCHAT: It turns out that the short-term protection with DTaP is very good. Within two years of getting vaccinated, the protection is about 95 percent. But by five years after completing the five-dose childhood series, protection drops off and is only about 70 percent. We call that waning immunity or a drop-off in protection.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So several years ago, a pertussis booster shot was developed which the CDC says should be given to all teenagers and adults.

But it’s not known how long that protection lasts. Babies remain extremely vulnerable, because they don’t get their first shot until two months of age. People in the quiet town of Lake Stevens, near Everett, know all too well the tragedy pertussis can bring.

This is where little Kaliah Jeffery lived for just 27 days. When mother Chelsey Charles brought her new baby home, she was already suffering from a bad cough. She also had not been vaccinated while she was pregnant.

CHELSEY CHARLES: My cough was just getting progressively worse since labor. During the second week, she started to sneeze a little bit. I was, like, Googling stuff. And the only thing that caught my eye was whooping cough. So I started getting really scared, because it was deadly to newborns.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Following a diagnosis of pertussis, little Kaliah was admitted to the intensive care unit at a Seattle hospital. Things went from bad to worse.

CHELSEY CHARLES: Four doctors stood there, and they were all crying, and they told us that there was no way that the machine was going to work any longer.

They asked me how I wanted to let her go. And they placed her in my arms, and everybody said goodbye. And I was holding her. And we were telling her that everything was going to get better and that she’d be OK now and she wouldn’t have to fight anymore. And then they took her off life support. And then she tried to take a breath. And, within seconds, she was just gone.

This was the day that she quite breathing and they had to put her on the ventilator.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So now Chelsey fills her days with pictures and memories. And she often stops in front of a bookcase to rearrange Kaliah’s stuffed animals around the tiny silver heart that contains the baby’s ashes.

CHELSEY CHARLES: Everybody needs to be vaccinated from it, because you don’t want somebody else to lose a baby because of your ignorance of not vaccinating.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The adult pertussis booster is only a few years old, so the CDC says vaccination rates among adults are dangerously low, just 8 percent.

But health officials now believe immunity from the old vaccine probably wore off for most adults years ago.

MARY SELECKY, Washington secretary of health: And Greg, what you know about the state, here we have King County, and it gives a rate, 5.4.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In Olympia, Wash., state health officials have been closely monitoring the path of the disease since they declared an epidemic in April.

Mary Selecky is the state’s secretary of health.

MARY SELECKY: Adults don’t realize they are the carriers, and they are the ones who carry this bug around. They might get a mild case and have a dry cough and think it’s seasonal allergies. And what they are doing is carrying whooping cough. And every time they cough, they spread it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The two companies that manufacture the vaccine say they know there may be problems, but still think vaccination is the most effective way to prevent whooping cough.

Questions about the vaccine have led a number of parents in Washington state to refuse to vaccinate their kids. Vashon Island is just a short ferryboat ride from downtown Seattle.

MARCH TWISDALE, parent: See where those flowers are? Walk towards there and check for green beans.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: This is where March Twisdale and her family live on a farm. Twisdale has vaccinated her two boys against tetanus and measles, but not whooping cough. She thinks the vaccine is ineffective.

MARCH TWISDALE: I’m not a vaccine-denier. I know what vaccines do, and I know what they don’t do. That’s the real difference. I know when I can trust them, when I can’t, when they work, when they don’t, and the long-term effects of them.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Twisdale and her two sons have all had whooping cough. But she says, if they get sick again, she’s prepared.

MARCH TWISDALE: I personally know how important it is to keep ourselves at home and to keep quarantine as a tool in our toolkit, and to not casually go spreading your germs to other people because you think it’s not going to hurt anyone.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Twisdale’s views are shared by a lot of other people on Vashon Island, where 18 percent of school-age children have not been vaccinated against one or more infectious diseases. That’s three times higher than the rest of the state.

On nearby Maury Island, Celina Yarkin and her family raise vegetables to sell at the local farmer’s market. She’s a strong vaccine supporter who thinks keeping sick kids at home doesn’t stop the spread of whooping cough.

CELINA YARKIN, parent: I do think that it’s arrogant to think that you can outsmart a microbe and a virus. With pertussis, you know, thinking that you can catch with just a cough, I mean, I know that we have a lot of coughs through the winter. And to identify it as pertussis right away and quarantine is — boy, I wouldn’t trust myself to be able to catch that with my kids to keep other kids safe. I just — I think that’s very risky.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Last year, the Washington state legislature made it harder for parents to refuse to vaccinate. It passed a law that requires people to be fully informed of the pros and cons of vaccines before choosing to opt out.

But health officials think, even with a drop of 2 percent in the state’s number of refusers, the whooping cough epidemic will get worse before it gets better.

GWEN IFILL: We have more reporting on whooping cough online: a first-person account from Chelsey Charles on her daughter’s death, 10 things you should know about the disease, and two views on vaccinations from mothers who made different decisions. Plus, a CDC official will answer your questions about whooping cough. Submit them on our Health page.