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Whooping Cough Epidemic Showcases Shortcomings in System
Little Kaliah Jeffery (above) was healthy when she was born last summer. But 27 days later, she was dead, a victim of whooping cough (pertussis), unknowingly passed on to her by her mother.
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Now Kaliah’s family is trying warn others about the dangers of pertussis and also about the fact that the TDAP vaccines most children receive against the disease may lose their effectiveness after five to 10 years and need to be updated. And they’re also pushing Congress and health organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control to develop more effective warning mechanisms when outbreaks begin.
Worst outbreak in 60 years
Kaliah died in August, but not until early April did Washington State health officials acknowledge the existence of a pertussis epidemic. And now, they say, it may be the worst such outbreak in the state in 60 days, with more than 1,000 cases already reported this year.
Yet under current guidelines, organizations such as the CDC need to warn only health-care providers, not the general public. Had Kaliah’s mother, only 17, known that her childhood vaccination was no longer protecting her against the disease, she might have been able to get a booster shot that would have prevented her from getting the cough – and then passing it on to Kaliah.
“90 percent of the adults in the country are not vaccinated against pertussis,” said Kaliah’s aunt, Kennetha Scott, who has created a web site about her niece. “CDC never told them childhood vaccine wore off.”
In fact, Scott noted, shortly after Kaliah was born, she was at a birthday party with several other babies, all of whom could also have been exposed to the disease – again because no one knew about the outbreak or the danger.
Putting the question to Congress
Scott has used the Ask your Lawmaker web site to contact members of Congress and find out whether they would support legislation requiring the CDC or other organizations to notify the general public, rather than only health-care providers, in the event of epidemics.
Ask Your Lawmaker, an affiliate of NewsiT, put the question to her representative, Rick Larsen, a Democrat.
“I think that’s an excellent idea,” Larsen said. He said he believes the CDC does also contact public health departments as well as health-care providers, but those agencies often are limited in their effectiveness at spreading the word. “Their budgets basically depend upon the local taxpayers. And with the economy being down in Washington State as it has been, there have been a lot of cuts in our public health departments. So I would hope as the economy recovers, tax receipts for public health departments recover, and they’ll have more dollars to put back into public information.”
In the meantime, Scott has persuaded the local health department to mail post cards about the pertussis epidemic and the TDAP booster to all residents of Snohomish County, Wash., where she lives. But she’s frustrated that it’s taken eight months to get to this point.
“They would have been quiet still to this day if we hadn’t done that,” she said. “It’s scary.”
Contribute to this story. Have you or anyone you know had a bad cough recently? Did the doctor test for pertussis? Talk about needing a booster shot?