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Topics > Healthy Outlook > Whooping Cough Outbreak Underscores Need for Immunizations

Whooping Cough Outbreak Underscores Need for Immunizations

Published by Contra Costa Times

Posted on Tue, May 20, 2008

By Erika Jenssen, MPH

A recent whooping cough outbreak at a private school in El Sobrante illustrates how important it is for children to be immunized against preventable diseases. At least 17 children at the school have fallen ill with the highly infectious respiratory illness, whooping cough (also known as pertussis), which can be dangerous in young children.

Fortunately, all of the children are recovering. But the outbreak could have been prevented if more of the students had been immunized.

State law allows parents to choose to not immunize their children for personal or religious reasons, and the parents of more than half of the students opted not to immunize before the outbreak. Coincidentally, my child attends this school. Fortunately she was immunized and didn't become sick.

I understand parents' concerns over immunizations and respect their right to decide. However, it is important to understand that this decision doesn't just affect one child but can also have an impact on the entire community. I urge parents to choose to immunize in order to protect their children and their community.

There have been concerns regarding vaccines or vaccine ingredients causing autism. But several large studies have found no scientific connection. For more information, go to the Web site of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Others question if immunizations work.

Whooping cough vaccine is about 85 percent effective. Most immunized children won't get whooping cough, and even if they do, their symptoms will be less severe and they won't be as contagious to others.

Whooping cough is spread through the air when someone coughs or sneezes or by other close contact. Symptoms include runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes, fever over 99.8 degrees Fahrenheit and a cough.

The violent coughing spasms can last several minutes and persist for months. Whooping cough is especially dangerous for infants, and can even be fatal. In December, a baby died of whooping cough in Sonoma County.

We urge adolescents and parents also to be immunized. Whooping cough is seldom serious in adults, and is often mistaken for a bad cold or bronchitis.

But infected adults can spread it to children even if they don't have symptoms. Then older children can pass it to their infant siblings. The whooping cough vaccine wears off, so it's important to get a booster shot as an adolescent.

Vaccines can save your child's life and protect him or her from other serious diseases, such as measles and meningitis. Vaccinating your child and your family also protects the community, particularly those who are too young to get vaccinated and most vulnerable to the serious consequences of these diseases.

Earlier this year in San Diego, an unvaccinated 7-year-old traveled to Switzerland and contracted measles. When he came home, he went to the doctor and gave measles to four children in the doctor's waiting room - one of these children was hospitalized.

In the Contra Costa whooping cough outbreak, we are watching and waiting and hoping that we have stopped the outbreak and that whooping cough has not spread any further in the school or in the larger community. While we are waiting, parents should consider their decision about immunizations carefully.

For more information about immunizations, visit or call the Contra Costa Immunization Program at 925-313-6767.

Jenssen is the Immunization Coordinator for Contra Costa Health Services.

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