This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
That cough you hear could be a symptom of an epidemic that is gripping the state – whooping cough, or pertussis.
Fortunately, if diagnosed early, the highly contagious respiratory ailment – which is spread by coughing or sneezing – is easily treated with antibiotics. But it can be deadly to infants and has killed four babies in this state since 2010. Last year, 950 cases were reported in Washington. Already this year there have been 640, which puts the state on a pace for setting a modern record.
Those numbers are deceiving; health experts believe only about 10 to 12 percent of cases are reported.
To combat the epidemic, says the state Department of Health, almost all of us need to be immunized against it. Most children get the DTaP vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis – although too many parents are opting their children out of the shot due to an unfounded fear of vaccines.
Those holdouts are contributing to the spread of pertussis and other childhood diseases that once killed thousands every year. In this epidemic, adults are also part of the problem. To maintain “herd” immunity against pertussis, 90 percent of us need to be immunized, but because the vaccine’s effects wear off in time, most of us no longer have immunity unless we’ve received the Tdap booster.
It’s especially important for adults who have contact with young children to be sure they’ve had the Tdap vaccine. Pregnant women should also be immunized so that they can pass their immunity on to their baby; that’s important because newborns can’t be immunized before 4 to 6 weeks.
Free or low-cost immunization is available for those who are uninsured or underinsured and care for infants or newborns. (Go to the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department web site here.)
Back in the 1930s and ’40s, pertussis was a dreaded killer of infants and children. In 1934 alone, 7,518 deaths were reported in the U.S. That ended with development and widespread use of the DPT vaccine, the forerunner of today’s DTaP. Today, no child should die of pertussis. But that can only happen if adults take responsible, preventive steps.