A whooping cough outbreak has worsened in Kootenai County, infecting 43 children as investigators scramble to track down suspected sources of the disease.
The episode underscores a stubborn problem in Idaho: the failure of parents to vaccinate their children against infectious disease.
The outbreak, already five times greater than those in recent years, has not yet resulted in hospitalizations, said Cynthia Taggart, spokeswoman for the Panhandle Health District. Pertussis, commonly called whooping cough, can be treated with antibiotics. And it can be prevented with vaccines.
“Our community is a pertussis reservoir,” Taggart said. “It’s here all the time, and some of our kids don’t go to the doctors to get treated until it gets serious.”
Idaho, along with Washington, has among the lowest vaccination rates for children nationwide. About 67 percent of children in Kootenai County have had the recommended immunizations against diseases that just generations ago killed, crippled and seriously sickened many children across the country. In Spokane County, the vaccination rate is about 73 percent. The national average exceeds 76 percent.
The news this week that Britain banned Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who was found to have unethically conducted and published research linking vaccines and autism 12 years ago, was welcomed by health officials who say vaccines are critical to protecting children.
Although health officials won’t lay all of the blame for lagging vaccination rates at the feet of discredited studies, they say there’s little doubt such research has steered some parents clear of child vaccinations.
“We can’t associate a causal relationship with Dr. Wakefield’s study, but we do know vaccine hesitancy is a huge issue in Washington,” said Lonnie Malone with the Washington State Department of Health.
Wakefield’s study sample included children who were paid for providing blood samples as they attended his son’s birthday party. His study – suggesting a link between health problems and the vaccines against measles, mumps and rubella – was published in the Lancet, a leading medical journal, in 1998. The Lancet eventually retracted the article after Wakefield’s methods and results came under fire.
Wakefield has said in television interviews and published accounts that he stands by his work.
Pediatricians and others decline to criticize Wakefield sharply, instead attempting to educate parents about vaccines, including the risks.
“We know there are groups of parents who don’t want their kids vaccinated,” said Roy Almeida, director of epidemiology at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Children’s Hospital. “It does concern us. So we do what we can to explain why it’s important.”
The success rate has been up and down. Some years vaccination rates climb. In others they fall.
Last year the parents of 5,341 children attending Spokane County public schools – or about 7.4 percent – signed vaccine exemptions. The vast majority did so for personal reasons, including fear and lost immunization records.
The rest declined to have their children vaccinated for medical and religious reasons, said Kristi Siahaya, the immunization outreach coordinator for the Spokane Regional Health District.
Spokane has so far escaped the spread of pertussis.
Last year there were 460 cases across Washington state. It killed one person.
“It’s serious, and we strongly encourage parents to have their children vaccinated against it and other diseases,” Almeida said.
Children are especially vulnerable to the bacterial infection, which can produce symptoms including severe coughing spells, vomiting and lack of breath.
Left untreated, the disease can develop into pneumonia, seizures and encephalitis.
It typically begins with a runny nose. A cough then follows, which is how the illness is spread.