“Whooping Cough Vaccine’s Protection Fades Quickly,” reports Lisa Aliferis, State of Health Editor at KQED in Northern California, one of America’s most watched prime time public television stations. Aliferis yesterday reported on a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics that confirmed what many had suspected — the vaccine for whooping cough is a failure: “in the past five years, [California] state health officials have declared epidemics of whooping cough twice — in 2010 and in 2014, when 11,000 people were sickened and three infants died,” Aliferis wrote.
“Now an analysis of a recent whooping cough epidemic in Washington state shows that the effectiveness of the Tdap vaccine used to fight the illness (also known as pertussis) waned significantly. For adolescents who received all their shots, effectiveness within one year of the final booster was 73%. The effectiveness rate plummeted to 34% within two to four years.”
The whooping cough epidemics were widely blamed at the time on the refusal of many in the public to get vaccinated with the Tdap, a combination vaccine designed to protect against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. Now the science indicates that the blame could have been largely misplaced, the epidemics often caused by the vaccine’s failure. As Aliferis reported, the Pediatrics article (“Tdap Vaccine Effectiveness in Adolescents During the 2012 Washington State Pertussis Epidemic)” stated that “This waning is likely contributing to the increase in pertussis among adolescents” and that new vaccines are “likely needed to reduce the burden of pertussis disease.”
Aliferis’s accurate, information-rich coverage of this issue reported that today’s pertussis vaccine in 1997 replaced an earlier vaccine of questionable safety. Quoting CDC’s Art Reingold, a University of California, Berkeley professor of public health, she informed her audience that booster shots wouldn’t help solve today’s predicament, that no new pertussis vaccine is under development, and that “Pertussis is not going to go away with the current vaccine.”
To add further context, Aliferis had Reingold to explain that the whooping cough vaccine was always limited, even in theory, in protecting the general public.
“Reingold also drew an interesting distinction between measles and pertussis having to do with herd immunity. If a large enough percentage of the population is immunized against measles, both individuals and the broader community are protected against outbreak. That’s because the measles vaccine protects you against the virus that actually causes the measles illness.
“But in pertussis, the disease is caused by toxins that are released by bacteria. The pertussis vaccine protects you against those toxins, but it may not prevent you from spreading the bacteria to others — and causing illness in them.”
Kudos to Lisa Aliferis (@laliferis) for her balanced and informative coverage of the failure of the whooping cough vaccine. Kudos, too, to KQED (@KQED) and NPR (@nprnews), for providing a venue for Aliferis’s honest reporting — apart from public broadcasting, this story has received virtually no coverage, fair or otherwise.