A new type of pertussis vaccine introduced in the late 1990s may have led to the return of a disease that was nearly eradicated 40 years ago. Public opposition to vaccination hasn’t helped matters.
Whooping cough has turned up in North America after decades of near absence, and we have only ourselves to blame. In the last several years, the highly contagious microbe that causes whooping cough has spawned a string of outbreaks, adeptly piercing the shield of vaccination that once afforded solid protection against it. The last time whooping cough was this pervasive in the United States, Dwight Eisenhower was president and newscasters were smoking cigarettes on TV.
Caused by the Bordetella pertussis bacterium, whooping cough is emerging from the shadows in response to a fateful switch of vaccines embraced in the 1990s, just when it seemed the disease was licked. The vaccine used today has proved less potent than its predecessor. Meanwhile, curious changes are appearing in the pertussis bacterium itself, possibly in response to the weaker vaccine, and they may further undermine its effect. To top it off, a phobia against vaccines has induced some parents to skip or delay their kids’ shots, contributing to the disease’s spread.
“The newer vaccine’s protection wanes over time, the pathogen is morphing and more patients aren’t getting vaccinated on time,” says Jason Glanz, an epidemiologist at the University of Colorado Denver and the Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Research Colorado. “Put them together and you get greatly increased risk.”