A Canadian woman who formerly identified with anti-vaccination movement has had her mind changed by a brush with whopping cough. And she has some harsh words for the people who still refuse to vaccinate their children.
“Why are you playing Russian Roulette with your child’s life?” says Naomi Murray. “I just don’t understand it. I don’t understand how you can opt out of something that’s free.… Why are you OK with putting other people at risk? Why are you OK with that?”
Murray, whose baby recently spent five days at the Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre Children’s Hospital with a bout of whooping cough, used to be skeptical about vaccines. Today, she is onboard with the science community.
“I was on the phone with public health and I was yelling a lot, because I was so mad with unvaccinated parents and blaming them,” Murray told the CBC.
Whooping cough, or Pertussis, is an airborne disease that is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. Its onset feels much like a common cold, but then causes lengthy bouts of coughing that give the disease its other nickname, “100-day cough”. The condition can be dangerous, especially to children, whose mortality rate from the disease is approximately two per cent.
The U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks the number of annual cases of pertussis, or whopping cough, in the United States every year. The incidence of the bacterial disease peaked in the 1930’s and dropped consistently for decades. In 1934, there were 265,269 cases. That fell to just 1010 in 1976. But recent numbers are climbing. In 2012, there were 48,277 cases. The average number of cases in the United States between 2010 and 2014 was 31,231.
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In Canada, there have been notable recent outbreaks in New Brunswick, where at least 47 people have contracted the bacterial disease. And in Manitoba there have been more than 40 cases, something Manitoba Health blames on parents not vaccinating their children.
Most scientists point the finger at recent outbreaks of diseases such as the measles squarely at the anti-vaccination crowd because parents opting out of vaccinating their children has brought the levels of herd immunity down to dangerous levels. In July, Stats Canada released the 2013 Childhood National Immunization Coverage Survey. It revealed that about 89% of two-year-olds had received the recommended number of immunizations against measles, mumps and rubella and about 77% of two-year-olds had received the required number of shots for diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough) and tetanus.
That 89% number falls short of a key level that scientists believe helps prevent the outbreak of disease. A vaccination level of 95% ensures what is referred to as “herd immunity” or “community immunity”. When this level of the population is vaccinated, disease has almost no chance of spreading to society at large.
But there is another issue: the whooping cough vaccine seems to be becoming less effective as the bacteria that causes the disease appears to be mutating. CDC scientist Lucia Pawloski says mutations were found in 60% of whooping cough samples.
Despite its weakened effect, however, healthcare providers say the whooping cough vaccine remains the single biggest thing parents can do to protect their children.
“We know that it’s not a vaccine that is 100 per cent effective,” says New Brunswick’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Yves Léger. “Hopefully with time, we’ll get a better vaccine.”