In addition to the stress of testing, paper-writing, and final grades, Wheaton students also faced pertussis, or whooping cough, this school year. Student Health Services (SHS) sent out a precautionary email Dec. 1 that notified the campus community of a few cases of the disease, followed by an email on Dec. 11 to warn students of another confirmed case.
Wheaton is not alone in the sudden threat of a pertussis outbreak. Although eradicated by the development of a vaccine in the 40s, cases of the disease have actually been steadily increasing since the 1970s, especially in infants, who are the demographic with the highest mortality risk for pertussis. For babies below 4 months of age, the prevalence of pertussis has risen by 72 percent since the 1990s.
But the biggest spike has emerged within the past decade. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reported case numbers remained under 10,000 until 2003 when they reached around 12,000, and continued to increase to roughly 48,000 in 2012. Since then, the numbers have decreased slightly to around 20,000, but seem to be rising once more in 2017/18.
Dupage County alone saw numbers rise to 106 in 2016—the highest number of cases reported since the 195 in 2012.
Many are blaming the increasing number of parents who are refusing to vaccinate their children for the rise in pertussis cases.
One study found that unvaccinated children were “roughly 23 times more likely to develop whooping cough” than those who received the vaccine. In addition, children without the vaccine are more likely to spread the disease to those who do have it. Another study found that “24 to 45 percent of people who came down with pertussis were either unvaccinated or undervaccinated.”
However, the CDC (among other scientific groups) places the blame on increasing immunity to the vaccine itself rather than some children’s lack of vaccine, as less than one percent of parents choose not to vaccinate their children.
Experts have found that immunity acquired by the pertussis vaccine declines five to ten years after the series of shots. The CDC suggests the Tdap vaccine shot for pregnant women, a series of five shots for babies over a period of four to six years, and now an added booster shot 11 or 12 years to counteract the immunity.
Chair of Pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School Dr. John Modline claimed that “whooping cough is the only vaccine-preventable disease that has not been completely controlled by routine childhood immunization.”
To meet a rising need for a booster, one manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline, has proposed “Boostrix,” which would “add a pertussis component to the vaccine cocktail against tetanus and diphtheria that is currently given to 10-18 year-olds.”
In the meantime, health professionals, including those in the SHS, encourage students, faculty, and staff to wash their hands, keep vaccinations up-to-date, and watch for symptoms of whooping cough so that they can receive an early diagnosis, which aids in proactive treatment and containment.