Whooping around the clock

From last month, an article by Julia Joffe in the New Republic about the joys of having whooping cough, with thanks to Jenny McCarthy. Non-sincere thanks to Jenny McCarthy.

At this writing, I have been coughing for 72 days. Not on and off coughing, but continuously, every day and every night, for two and a half months. And not just coughing, but whooping: doubled over, body clenched, sucking violently for air, my face reddening and my eyes watering. Sometimes, I cough so hard, I vomit. Other times, I pee myself. Both of these symptoms have become blessedly less frequent, and I have yet to break a rib coughing—also a common side effect. Nor do I still have the fatigue that felled me, often, at my desk and made me sleep for 16 hours a night on the weekends. Now I rarely choke on things like water, though it turns out laughing, which I do a lot of, is an easy trigger for a violent, paralyzing cough that doctors refer to not as a cough, but a paroxysm.

There’s more, a lot more. About all that while at work, all that while eating at a restaurant, all that while going on tv to discuss world events, all that while interviewing a subject. And about children with all that.

There’s a reason that we associate the whooping cough with the Dickensian: It is. The illness has, since the introduction of a pertussis vaccine in 1940, has been conquered in the developed world. For two or three generations, we’ve come to think of it as an ailment suffered in sub-Saharan Africa or in Brontë novels. And for two or three generations, it was.

Until, that is, the anti-vaccination movement really got going in the last few years. Led by discredited doctors and, incredibly, a former Playmate, the movement has frightened new parents with claptrap about autism, Alzheimer’s, aluminum, and formaldehyde. The movement that was once a fringe freak show has become a menace, with foot soldiers whose main weapon is their self-righteousness. For them, vaccinating their children is merely a consumer choice, like joining an organic food co-op or sending their kids to a Montessori school or drinking coconut water.

I would add to that: it’s a “consumer choice” with extra added smug virtue, like joining an organic food co-op or sending their kids to a Montessori school. The people do it think it’s right-on and meritorious and thoughtfully nonconformist.

The problem is that it is not an individual choice; it is a choice that acutely affects the rest of us. Vaccinations work by creating something called herd immunity: When most of a population is immunized against a disease, it protects even those in it who are not vaccinated, either because they are pregnant or babies or old or sick. For herd immunity to work, 95 percent of the population needs to be immunized. But the anti-vaccinators have done a good job undermining it. In 2010, for example, only 91 percent of California kindergarteners were up to date on their shots. Unsurprisingly, California had a massive pertussis outbreak.

There is nothing virtuous about causing that to happen. On the contrary.

It would be an understatement to say that pertussis and other formerly conquered childhood diseases like measles and mumps are making a resurgence. Pertussis, specifically, has come roaring back. From 2011 to 2012, reported pertussis incidences rose more than threefold in 21 states. (And that’s just reported cases. Since we’re not primed to be on the look-out for it, many people may simply not realize they have it.) In 2012, the CDC said that the number of pertussis cases was higher than at any point in 50 years. That year, Washington state declared an epidemic; this year, Texas did, too. Washington, D.C. has also seen a dramatic increase. This fall, Cincinnati reported a 283 percent increase in pertussis.

Another win for obscurantism and willful stupidity.


  1. machintelligence says

    If you want anti-vax, the Montessori schools don’t hold a candle to the Waldorf schools.
    Also the new acellular pertussis vaccine, while it is less prone to cause reactions, is proving to have a shorter period of effective immunity. Trivalent DTP has largely been replaced with TDaP and the booster immunization period has been shortened by a few years. Of course failure to immunize is still the most serious problem.

  2. ekwhite says


    That is a good point about the shorter effective immunity of TDaP. On the whole, though, I am glad that whole cell pertussis is a thing of the past. I used to help produce whole cell pertussis and helped to bring one of the first acellular pertussis vaccines to the US market. On the whole, I am glad that the whole cell vaccine is a thing of the past.

  3. Al Dente says

    I had an argument with a person at work who refused to admit that smallpox was eradicated by vaccination. Xe was convinced it was “healthy diet and clean water” which conquered smallpox.

  4. carlie says

    My husband had whooping cough last year. He was told it generally takes about 90 days to clear up, and that’s about what it took. In the meantime, the coughing was so violent that he tore some muscles in his ribcage causing weeks of pain to the point that he thought he broke a rib.

  5. Vicki says

    At the doctor’s a few weeks ago, one of the standard questions on the intake form was whether I had had a DTaP vaccine in the last five years. It used to be ten. (I last had one four years ago, purely because it had been 9.5 years, and I am not waiting that long for the next one.)

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