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Whooping Cough Booster Shots Studied as Statewide Epidemic Passes 3,000 Cases

In Pierce County, more than 400 cases of pertussis have been reported so far this year.

Washington’s whooping cough epidemic passed 3,000 reported cases this week while new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates vaccine protection doesn’t last as long as expected, according to a Washington Department of Health (DOH) press release.

The fact that the protection wears off sooner than was previously thought is among the reasons that most cases in Washington are in school age children who are vaccinated. An upcoming study in Washington by health investigators will look into similar information for the Tdap booster vaccine for teens and adults.

“Whooping cough vaccines work but don’t seem to last as long as was expected,” said Secretary of Health Mary Selecky. “Even so, vaccinated people who get whooping cough have milder symptoms, shorter illnesses, and are less likely to spread the disease to others. Our biggest concern is keeping babies from getting sick – and vaccination is still the best protection.”

A report on the Washington epidemic was published today in the CDC’s weekly publication. The report highlights more reported cases among 13-14 year olds – a changing trend across the country that indicates a shorter duration for vaccine protection against whooping cough (pertussis).

So far in 2012, 446 cases have been reported in Pierce County as of July 14, according to the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department (TPCHD). In 2011 there were 128 cases the entire year, and in 2010 there were 84 cases.

Eight babies have died of pertussis in the U.S. so far this year, but none in the state. 

The focus on Washington state comes as a statewide epidemic continues and has reached annual levels not seen since 1941, when there were approximately 200,000 confirmed cases nationwide (4,960 cases in Washington state). According to the CDC, about 25,000 cases in the U.S. were confirmed in 2010 — a 50-year high — and 2012 is on pace to exceed that.

Whooping cough continues to be a very serious threat to infants who are at greatest risk of serious disease if they’re infected; they’re often hospitalized. Babies get the first dose of whooping cough vaccine at two months of age and need a series of five shots to be fully protected. So far this year 185 cases have been reported in children less than one year old; 39 have been hospitalized.

"It is also clear that vaccination remains our most effective weapon to control this disease. Vaccination reduces one’s chances of developing pertussis as well as reducing the duration and severity of symptoms," said Nigel Turner of TPCHD. "In addition, it helps reduce transmission in our community, which is important in ensuring our youngest and most vulnerable community members are protected."  

“We’ve been working hard to slow the spread of disease and understand better what’s going on,” said Secretary Selecky. “CDC has been a huge help. Analyzing the details of the whooping cough epidemic in Washington could help CDC and other states learn some things that weren’t known before, and see this changing trend – and that’s public health in action.”

CDC is helping Washington’s disease investigators analyze data as part of an “epi-aid” to the state; they have also helped with outreach. DOH will continue to work with CDC on a study of how long the Tdap vaccine lasts and how well it protects people.

Information from a study done during the 2010 California whooping cough outbreak showed that the DTaP vaccine for children works very well for the first couple years after vaccination. The data from California also showed that the protection decreases to about 70 percent effectiveness five years after vaccination. That means kids are more at risk for getting the disease the longer it’s been since they were vaccinated. DOH officials say they will investigate similar concerns in its upcoming study.

“The more we learn about whooping cough, the better we’ll be able to fight this epidemic,” said State Health Officer Dr. Maxine Hayes. “It’s a miracle a baby hasn’t died in our state yet this year – it has happened before and could happen again. Although vaccine protection wears off over time, vaccination remains the best tool we have to slow the spread of this serious disease. That’s why we’re asking everyone to get vaccinated.”

Tacoma Pierce County Health Department has partnered with our community health care providers and pharmacies to make sure low and no cost adult and childhood pertussis vaccines are available throughout the county. Check website at tpchd.org for more information.

(Ed. Note: The information in this article was provided by the State Department of Health and Tacoma Pierce County Health Department.)

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