Rock Doc: Adults need to protect against pertussis, too

MONDAY, SEPT. 17, 2012

Even if you don’t have kids in your household, you could be exposed to serious diseases that often affect children. And at the moment there’s a sharp spike upward in one contagious disease that you could help protect both yourself and youngsters against by getting a simple shot at the doctor’s office.

Vaccines stand at the heart of modern medical science. They can help protect us against a number of serious, contagious diseases. Vaccines may not grant us perfect immunity, but they have helped transform the landscape of a number of problems that used to plague us, particularly in childhood.

That’s my take on the general issue of vaccination and, in particular, the vaccine against whooping cough (pertussis). Pertussis is a serious bacterial disease that causes a strong cough that lasts for weeks. Occasionally, whooping cough can even be fatal, especially for infants. It gets its distinctive name from the “whooping” sound victims make as they gasp for air after bouts of serious coughing.

Washington state is in the midst of a whooping cough epidemic. According to the state Department of Health website, Washington has had almost 4,000 cases so far this year, many times the number we had a year ago. In short, we are on track to hit totals not seen since the 1940s.

Whooping cough can strike people of any age, but it’s riskiest mostly for infants, who can die from it. That fact makes me think it’s worth assuming some risk getting vaccinated to help protect the young from this life-threatening illness.

One reason Washington may be having a high proportion of pertussis cases is that we have the highest percentage of parents nationwide who decline to vaccinate their kids. Some do so out of fear of side effects from the shots, some because of religious or other concerns.

The New York Times talked with Dr. Thomas Clark of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the surge in pertussis cases, and he said the modern vaccine for pertussis may be another factor in the current outbreak. In the 1990s the vaccine was modified to limit side effects, and Clark said the immunity granted by the vaccine doesn’t last as long as would be ideal.

On the good side, even if you do come down with pertussis, if you had the vaccine against it you’ll likely come down with a milder case than you would otherwise.

The adult booster for whooping cough is called “Tdap,” which stands for tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis.

The Associated Press has reported that we adults contribute quite a bit to the pertussis problem.

There are more adults in the general population than there used to be (in other words, the population is aging) and unless adults regularly get booster shots, the disease is always threatening to tick upward.

Let’s ask our docs for a round of Tdap the next time we go in for medical care.

E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Planet Rock Doc, a collection of Peters’ columns, is available at bookstores or from the publisher at wsupress.wsu.edu or (800) 354-7360. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

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