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Vaccination campaign credited for plunge in whooping cough cases

Two years after a whooping cough epidemic struck Washington state, the number of people infected has plummeted.

The state Department of Health credits a campaign to boost vaccination rates.

“We worked really hard to raise awareness about the epidemic, and provided advice on testing, who should be vaccinated and treatment guidelines,” said Michelle Harper, a DOH health educator.

But health officials also acknowledge that the illness, also known as pertussis, can go through cycles.

In a typical year, about 11 cases statewide are reported each week. At the height of the 2012 epidemic, those numbers reached 256 cases in a single week. The 2012 epidemic was the largest spread of the disease since 1942, according to a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Washington, where vaccination rates were below the national average, had 37.5 cases per 100,000 people – that was about nine times the national average that year, according to CDC data.

In 2013, the state preliminarily confirmed 716 cases of whooping cough, down from 4,918 the previous year.

So far in 2014, there have been 29 whooping cough cases in nine counties, according to the state health department.  Spokane County has had none.

Whooping cough is a highly infectious respiratory disease spread by coughing or sneezing near others. Although it can affect anyone, the disease is particularly severe for babies and young children.

“It’s impossible to say exactly what caused the epidemic, but we’re certain that a lot of it had to do with under-immunization,” said Kelly Stowe, Department of Health public information officer.

In 2011, the state Legislature adopted a law that required parents to get a physician’s signature if they wanted to avoid vaccination for their child. The Department of Health provides exemption reports for counties and schools in the state.

“Under-immunization generally occurs when parents voluntarily exempt their children from receiving certain vaccines out of fear of side effects,” said Stowe. “Or in some cases, people are uninsured and cannot afford the vaccine.”

While the rate of those infected with whooping cough fell after the 2012 epidemic, the Department of Health continues to encourage vaccination for kids, teens, and adults. Vaccinated children can still get sick, although pertussis is much more common in children who have not received the vaccine, according to the CDC.

The Murrow News Service provides local, regional and statewide stories reported and written by journalism students at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.