Whooping Cough (Pertussis) Epidemic in California: Tips for Covering the Story
The email press release I just received on an new epidemic of whooping cough in California is a jaw-dropper:
The state is on pace to suffer the most illnesses and deaths due to pertussis, also known as whooping cough, in 50 years.
As of June 15, California had recorded 910 cases of pertussis, a four-fold increase from the same period last year when 219 cases were recorded. Five infants - all under three months of age - have died from the disease this year. In addition, 600 more possible cases of pertussis are being investigated by local health departments.
I also was shocked to note that more than 80 percent of the children who died from pertussis in California since 1998 were Hispanic/Latino. Why?
Hispanics in California tend to have lower rates of health insurance than other groups, but Hispanic children are vaccinated at roughly the same rate as white children by the time they enter kindergarten. The same is true of children aged 19 to 35 months.
But what about infant vaccinations? Are there disparities there? The DTaP vaccine is given in four doses starting at two months.
And if whooping cough is on the rise in California, is the same thing happening in other states? That's also worth making a few calls.
Here are some other questions to ask:
1. False alarm? Are these really pertussis cases? Between 2004 and 2006, outbreaks of pertussis in three states turned out to be false alarms, prompting a CDC investigation.
2. Immunization rates: Are overall childhood vaccination rates rising or falling in your state or community? Overall, vaccination rates remain fairly high, but there are substantial variations in states and counties.
3. Vaccine exemptions: Are school vaccine exemptions on the rise, and how lenient is your state in granting them? A 2006 study published in JAMA found that states with lenient exemption policies reported about 50 percent more whooping cough cases than states with stricter policies.
4. Health disparities: Are some ethnic or racial groups more at risk for pertussis than others? Why? Is it because of different vaccination rates or lack of access to health care? Or is there some biological explanation?
Photo credit: Paparutzi via Flickr