- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 23, 2003

Health officials are seeing more cases of potentially deadly whooping cough than they have in many years, and they say the increases are a result in part of more children not being vaccinated against the disease.

The national increase has alarmed public health officials because pertussis — the medical name for whooping cough — once was a devastating disease in the United States. It infected as many as 270,000 people and caused 10,000 deaths each year prior to the introduction of a vaccine in the 1940s.

Symptoms are persistent dry coughing that can lead to a gasping for oxygen.

“It really is a serious thing,” said Dr. Martin Myers, executive director of the National Network for Immunization Information in Alexandria. “A multifold increase in pertussis is very worrisome. Nationally, we’re at levels we haven’t seen since the 1960s.”

The vaccine largely kept pertussis in check, reducing the number of cases to a low of 1,010 in 1976. But the disease has been on the increase in recent years, with more than 7,800 cases reported in 2000, including 17 infant deaths — which some experts suspect is a gross underestimation. In 2002, pertussis cases shot up to 9,771.

This year may be even worse. From New York to Washington, health officials are reporting local outbreaks of pertussis that consist of more cases than they have seen in 25 years or more.

In Oregon, 347 cases have been diagnosed so far this year, which puts the state on track for a 30-year high. Seattle has 189 cases — including the highest number in infants in 25 years — and Texas has had 32 cases so far in its Panhandle, the most in 35 years.

Several other states, including New York, Utah and Illinois, also are seeing increased incidences of the disease.

Health officials say one of the reasons for the outbreaks is a refusal by parents to vaccinate their children owing to concerns about side effects, such as fever, pain and potential seizures. Also, parents are often not aware of the seriousness of the disease.

In Westchester, N.Y., a county which typically sees about five or six cases per year, 28 have been reported since August alone. The outbreak began among four children who never had received the pertussis vaccine because their parents made a conscious decision not to vaccinate them, Westchester County Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua Lipsman said.

All four initial cases — and likely the entire outbreak — probably could have been prevented if they had been vaccinated, Dr. Lipsman said.

In Seattle, nearly a third of the 21 infected children between ages 2 and 7 had not been immunized.

Texas is seeing a similar situation. The state has experienced four deaths from the disease this year, said David Bastis, program manager in the immunization division of the Texas Department of Health.

“People don’t see the diseases very much, and as a consequence, they’ve forgotten how bad these diseases are,” Dr. Myers said. “They’re not scared of them like they used to be and don’t realize as vaccine coverage goes down, these diseases come back.”

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