The United States is poised to endure its worst year of pertussis, or whooping cough, in five decades. More than 18,000 cases have been reported this year, double last year's pace, and nine children have died. The respiratory disease has trended upward for several years, but the explosion in cases we're seeing now is startling.
A new vaccine was introduced in the late 1990s, in response to concerns about rashes, fevers and other side effects caused by the older vaccine. That formulation had been so effective it practically silenced the whoop altogether. The new one has fewer side effects, but appears to remain strongly effective for only about three years, according to a study by the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center.
We still use shot guidelines written for the old vaccine, and these now appear inadequate. Pertussis outbreaks are most common in middle and high schools. In New York State, students must be vaccinated for pertussis before they enroll in school, unless parents sign an affidavit refusing, and then get a booster again before sixth grade. This schedule is likely not enough.
One step toward stanching this epidemic would be to, as the Centers for Disease Control suggests, require boosters for kids every three years. Another would be an educational effort to battle the anti-immunizers.
Whooping cough was at one time a significant cause of infant mortality. Then we nearly had the disease licked. It would be a shame to let it roar back via outdated regulations and unfounded fears.