Whooping Cough Epidemic Hits Washington State

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Nurses Fatima Guillen, left, and Fran Wendt, right, give Kimberly Magdeleno, 4, a Tdap whooping cough booster shot, as she is held by her mother, Claudia Solorio, at a health clinic in Tacoma, Wash. (AP)
Nurses Fatima Guillen, left, and Fran Wendt, right, give Kimberly Magdeleno, 4, a Tdap whooping cough booster shot, as she is held by her mother, Claudia Solorio, at a health clinic in Tacoma, Wash. (AP)

The last time Washington state saw more cases of whooping cough was back in the 1940s, before the pertussis vaccine was available.

The CDC recommends that preteens, teens and adults be vaccinated for whooping cough, even if they were vaccinated as children.

Public health officials say there is an epidemic, with nearly 1,300 cases this year, over 10 times last year's numbers.

Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, chief of Communicable Disease and Immunizations for King County, Washington, told Here & Now's Robin Young that a number of factors could be contributing to the uptick, including a change in the vaccine. A new vaccine was created in the 90s that minimizes side effects, but it appears to last a shorter period of time, says Duchin.

Another factor is the high number of children in the state who are not vaccinated.

"We do have a large number of people in Washington state who don't immunize their children fully, and clearly that's not helping the situation at all," Duchin said.

As the New York Times reports:

According to a federal study last year of kindergarten-age children, had the highest percentage of parents in the nation who voluntarily exempted their children from one or more vaccines, out of fear of side effects or for philosophical reasons.

Who Should Get Vaccinated For Whooping Cough?

Children are typically vaccinated against whooping cough when they're young, but protection from the childhood vaccine decreases over time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that preteens, teens and adults be revaccinated, even if they were completely vaccinated as children. These recommendations are for all Americans, not just those in states with whooping cough outbreaks.

"The older kids and adults sometimes aren't aware that they are recommended to have a Tdap or pertussis booster so we have many unimmunized adults," Dr. Jeffrey Duchin said.

It is also recommended that pregnant women who have not received the whooping cough booster shot talk with their doctor about getting the vaccine, preferably during the third or late second trimester, or immediately after the baby's delivery.

What You Need To Know About Whooping Cough

Whooping cough is a highly contagious disease caused by bacteria. It starts like a common cold, but after 1-2 weeks, severe coughing can begin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But for many adults, whooping cough can just feel like a common cold. They may not realize they have it and can unintentionally spread it to others.

Whooping cough can be deadly for babies, who often do not exhibit the typical symptoms of coughing.

Down Economy Not Helping In Washington

In Washington state, officials have been offering vaccinations, but the recession has hampered relief efforts.

For example, Skagit County, near Seattle, has cut its public health staff in half since 2008 and has mostly shut down its preventive health programs.

Because the price tag on the test for whooping cough is $400, some doctors are being advised to forego the test for patients exhibiting symptoms, and to begin treatment, which consists of antibiotics.

Whooping cough cases are also up in a number of states across the country, from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania. And a death has been reported in both Idaho and New Mexico.


  • Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, Chief, Epidemiology and Immunization Section and professor in infectious diseases, University of Washington

This segment aired on May 15, 2012.


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