May 09, 2008

Whooping Cough Outbreak in California: Losing Herd Immunity?

There's been an outbreak of whooping cough (pertussis) at a private school in El Sobrante, California. If you're not familiar with a map of the state, that's a town a bit north of Berkeley and northeast of San Francisco. Apparently a number of people, both kindergarten-aged students and teachers, have contracted the disease.

Whooping cough outbreak closes school

A private school in El Sobrante is closed today because of an outbreak of whooping cough, authorities said.

Classes will not be in session today at the East Bay Waldorf School at 3800 Clark Road because a number of kindergartners and their teachers have come down with the contagious lung infection, authorities said.

In a letter to parents that was posted at the K-12 school, administrator Morgan Cleveland wrote, "You should be aware that because this is considered a significant outbreak, there is likely to be media attention..."
Most children are immunized against this disease as part of the childhood DPT (diptheria, pertussis and tetanus) vaccination. The disease had practically vanished from the United States as of just a few years ago because of this.

Unfortunately, hysteria about vaccinations has taken its toll. While I don't know for a fact how many of those who contracted the disease weren't immunized, I'm willing to bet it will be found that most were not, keeping in mind that the DPT vaccination doesn't last forever and should be readministered every 10 years or so. Many adults fail to do this, which would explain why teachers came down with pertussis in this case, but kindergarten children aren't old enough for their vaccines to have worn off.

There have recently been measles outbreaks as well, and in those cases a lack of immunization was to blame. If people keep up not having their children immunized because of vague, unsubstantiated worries about autism, for example, or for religious reasons (that religious exemptions exist at all is silly; that they can be so easily claimed is downright stupidity), eventually these outbreaks will turn into epidemics as the benefits of herd immunity are lost. In order for the benefit to disappear entirely, it would only require that about 9% of children aren't immunized in a given population.

Then again, there were plagues in the Dark Ages, too, and we came through those just fine... right?

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