Pertussis claims a ninth infant in California

By Phil Plait | September 15, 2010 12:31 pm

The LA Times is reporting that a ninth infant has died from pertussis — whooping cough — this year alone in California. This is the deadliest outbreak among infants since 2005.

The cause is clearly the lack of vaccinations. At least seven of the infants who died were too young to be vaccinated, which means they rely on herd immunity, the level of immunity in the population at large. Adults can carry the bacteria, and can then spread it to infants.

The root cause behind the lack of immunity in California isn’t clear. It may simply be that not enough adults know they need a Tdap booster (talk to your doctor!), or it may be that there is an antivaccination streak in California. Either way, the California Department of Public Health recommends everyone over 7 years old get immunized, especially people who come in contact with infants.

If you live in California — or anywhere — PLEASE talk to your doctor about getting vaccinated, whether it’s a booster or a first time shot. The cold, hard truth is that babies are dying from a preventable disease. I would dearly love to never have to write another blog post like this one.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Alt-Med, Antiscience
MORE ABOUT: antivax, vaccinations

Comments (48)

  1. I like the options for the “root cause,” it’s either ignorance, or willful ignorance . . . happy day!

  2. Gus Snarp

    It’s nice to know that there’s something we can actually easily do about this. We may not be able to change the minds of anti-vaxers, but we can improve herd immunity by getting a booster. I didn’t even know about this until recently, and I don’t know why more doctors aren’t recommending it to their patients, but we should all go get that booster and educate other people about it.

  3. Lisa

    I think it is a lack of knowledge. I’ve seen lots of PSAs on TV lately about the need for adults to be vaccinated, and I also know lots of adults who had no clue before that terrible whooping cough was blaring out of their TV every ten minutes. It was definitely an attention grabbing commercial. Whether people actually get vaccinated is a different story — I know lots of people don’t have regular doctors, they just see a Doc in the Box when they are sick (finding a doc as an adult in my area is tough, it takes LOTS of searching to find someone accepting new patients). Can you just walk into an urgent care place and get a pertussis vaccine?

  4. Katharine

    This and all the other crap going on in the United States makes my misanthropy go to a new high.

    It’s almost tempting just to go ‘meh’ about this and say I don’t care if it thins the herd of idiots, but then I’m reminded that even we vaccinated are dependent on herd immunity and among the deaths could have been perhaps one of my future graduate students…

    Really, part of me is thinking ‘people with an IQ under 110 should not be allowed to vote’.

  5. Lawrence

    Unfortunately, I can’t name another country out there that seems to be any smarter – since they all seem to have more than their fair share of woo, quacks & morons.

    I’d move, but there isn’t any place to go. Instead of standing on the shoulders of giants & attempting to do more, we’re acting like nothing but a bunch of spoiled brats kicking those same giants in the shins.

  6. in Mexico this types of vaccines are free and compulsory to any kid, regardless if you beleive in vaccination or not…. in this cases “overruling your free will” if you don’t want your kid to be vaccinated i say is a good thing

  7. Josie

    “The cause is clearly the lack of vaccinations.”
    Shouldn’t that actually be lack of herd immunity?

    There can be multiple causes of the effect of decreased herd immunity –lack of vaccinations being one. Aren’t there also cycles to pertussis outbreak? I’m not saying that it ISN’T lack of vaccination, I am just saying it might be glib to lay all the blame on it.

  8. Jer

    “Unfortunately, I can’t name another country out there that seems to be any smarter – since they all seem to have more than their fair share of woo, quacks & morons.”

    Stupidity seems to be spread equally among the general population. :-)

  9. Lisa — yes, many chains that have pharmacies have the adult vaccine. In my area Safeway & RiteAid both have the vaccine. I forget what the out-of-pocket cost is (not covered by my insurance).

    And I do agree that it may be lack of knowledge about the need for adult boosters + the relatively poor performance of the acellular pertussis vaccine + perhaps a more virulent strain circulating in California.

  10. Karen

    Actually, many public health experts aren’t linking this to lack of vaccination, though that’s part of the problem, but to the vaccine wearing off and boosters not being recommended. The CDC now recommends a booster of the Tdap for adolescents and adults.

  11. Michel

    “I would dearly love to never have to write another blog post like this one.”

    Wouldn´t bet on it…

    http: slash slash

  12. Franco

    I just got a free TDaP vaccine yesterday at the county Health Dept.
    No excuse people; let’s get it done!

  13. Dawn

    Franco: that was going to be my suggestion too. Check with your local health department for low cost vaccines. May even be free, depending on the state.

  14. I had my booster last year a few months before WorldsCoolestNephew(tm) was due. It cost me AUD$80. For anyone who may be thinking vaccination is expensive, think about it this way. The booster lasts roughly 10 years, that’s $8/year. Is that expensive? It could also save someone’s life by helping quell the spread of this disease. Is it still expensive?

    No, it’s ridiculously cheap and one of the least things you could do for your fellow man. Please, I beg you, go get your boosters now.

  15. @josie, yes it is because of low herd immunity, but low herd immunity is caused by low vaccination rates.

    People like Meryl Dorey should be held accountable for her with willing and deliberate misinformation.

  16. squirrelelite

    @Lisa 3,
    You probably can get the TDaP at an urgent care clinic.

    That’s where I got mine last winter. Of course, it may have helped that they are run by the same medical group that handles my regular doctors and the cost was mostly covered by insurance.

    The health department is probably the best place to call and ask first, though.

  17. Lucy Kemnitzer

    I work at a day care center where the children are from 2 weeks to kindergarten age. We have two babies and a couple of toddlers who have been diagnosed with “probable pertussis” and kept home with a run of antibiotics. These were all children who were getting their vaccinations. It takes a whole series to immunize a child, and if they are exposed before the series is finished, they are still vulnerable (though less so).

    None of these children had the classis pertussis symptoms. We sent them to the doctor because they had coughs that were worsening (but not the distinctive whooping type of cough) and we had been told that there was a possibility of atypical pertussis. The ones who have finished their antibiotics and enforced separation are back and healthy.`

    I’m disturbed by the “thin the herd remark” Katherine made at #4 because no infant is to blame for anyone else’s behavior. The fact is, also, that the infants are getting pertussis even if their parents are doing everything on time.

    As for the vaccine — I got mine for 15 dollars at the County Clinic, the same place where I got my H1N1 vaccination for free last year (taking care of infants means getting a lot of shots, I guess).

  18. RFranklin

    *sigh* I hate it when people die of preventable illnesses, especially those (example: infants) who are so incredibly dependent on others for their health. I’ve been trying to find a way to put together a free/inexpensive tdap vaccination clinic event at my college (totally ripping off the skepchicks), hopefully before people start going home for the holidays. This’ll provide an additional incentive to make it happen….

  19. Bob

    I would dearly like to find a provable link between the death of a specific child and that child’s having caught the disease from someone who wasn’t vaccinated and was the carrier who exposed the deceased to the disease, where the reason that the child wasn’t vaccinated because of having read and acted upon Jenny McCarthy’s advice.

    At that point we can have a quiet sit-down with Jenny’s attorney and Winfrey’s attorney and with the possibility of a manslaughter conviction in their future, get Ms. Winfrey to throw Jenny off the site and get Jenny to shut up and recant. If not, we go after Jenny and Ms Winfrey for manslaughter.


  20. t-storm

    Hey Katherine (#4) why don’t we just ship all undesirables in box cars and gas them?

  21. I’ve got a bub on the way, December, and I casually dropped it on a couple of the aunties and uncles that maybe they should consider getting a booster. Interestingly the reaction I got was a kind of eye rolling oh isn’t it sweet the first time daddy is paranoid about HIS little girl. This is from people who do vaccinate their kids. I’m not sure they get that there is a risk, albeit a small one.
    Maybe the warnings aren’t filtering through enough to the general population that supports vaxxing.

  22. Samuel L.

    Could this set a precedent that may open the floodgates?

  23. @Samuel L
    New Scientist has more info here…
    www dot newscientist dot com/article/mg19726464.100-autism-payout-reignites-vaccine-controversy.html?full=true

    “Autism experts say it is unclear why compensation is being paid”. It seems to be a legal capitulation and not a scientific decision. That’s the problem with the law courts. They’re run by lawyers.

  24. Ad Hominid

    Hey t-storm (#20)!
    In real life, it was pseudoscientists, conspiracy believers, and gullible adherents of emotional media appeals who put people in boxcars and gassed them. That doesn’t sound like Katharine’s side of the issue.

  25. Chris

    Sure, Samuel L… just as soon as you show that every autistic kid has a mitochondrial disorder!

    More information in this article

  26. Jeff Lock

    Not only in the old US of A
    I am sitting here watching the news in South Australia and one of the lead stories is a 5 week old baby has just died of whooping cough.
    What a waste.
    My uncle died of Polio in the 50s as a 11year old and my mother drummed into her kids the importance of vaccination.
    I in turn have drummed it into my kids.
    How people forget the terrible epidemics of the past.
    Such a simple solution to such a terrible problem.

  27. I am very sorry to say that a baby died in Adelaide from whooping cough on Tuesday.

    Stop the stop the australian vaccination network on Facebook has details or below is a link to the newspaper article…
    www dot adelaidenow dot com dot au/news/south-australia/baby-dies-of-whooping-cough-in-adelaide/story-e6frea83-1225924755686

    The comments section of the news report is illuminating. It takes a while for the antivaxxers to turn up but when they do… horrible.

  28. I cannot say that I am impartial in this – my late father spent a substantial portion of his career as a paediatric pathologist in Australia a)proving the infant mortality rate link to low pertussis immunisation rates, and b)improving the quality of pertussis vaccine.

    He was an incredibly peaceful and quiet-natured man. I read articles like this, and cannot help but think how frustrated he would have looked, and how appalled at the needless deaths that these people are causing he would have been. And, then, I remember that he would have just quietly got back to work educating other doctors about how to educate parents, and making sure that the truth was untainted by rage.

    Dad, I’m sorry to say it, but we still need you.

  29. mkgreevey

    Huh, I had no idea about adults needing a booster shot. Surprised this hasn’t been publicized more. So can adults just carry pertussis and then unsuspectingly pass it on, or would an adult have similar symptoms to a child? I would guess that even if they did they might just pass it off as a bad cough/cold. I certainly wouldn’t guess “whooping cough” if I had a bad cough for a few weeks…

  30. Gus Snarp

    I was looking up the booster for adults, and it seems that there really wasn’t one until about 2005. Maybe I’m misreading that, but it appears the Dtap booster for adults is a relatively new thing, which may explain some of the lack of knowledge about it.

    For the record, I, my six month old and my four year old all got our flu shots this week. Poor 4 year old, he also got MMR, Chicken Pox, and something else I can’t remember. Screamed and cried like a terrified banshee. Took a nap right after and couldn’t move his arms when he woke up. He’s fine today, of course. I think some of the visceral nature of the anti-vaccine crowd is caused by this. Even for the vast majority of parents who’ve never seen a vaccine reaction, they have had that day where their kid was screaming in terror, while they, who are the child’s protector, had to hold them down to have the needle stuck in their arm or leg repeatedly. We know we’re doing the right thing, but the emotional response to that kind of terror in your kid and the look of betrayal on their face is hard to overcome. And if they’re then miserable the rest of the day, so much the worse. And then some apparently kind, caring parent who they trust on some level is telling them vaccines can actually cause developmental problems that terrify them, and that they know it is true because it happened to them. We’ve got a lot to overcome with nothing but sound scientific information compared to the emotional triggers on the other side. I do hope that researchers continue to work on ways to combine vaccines into even fewer shots, which might help overcome at least some of the emotional issue. In the meantime, of course, we parents need to remember that our children’s long term health comes first, and vaccines are a key part in that, no matter how hard it can be.

  31. squirrelelite

    @Samuel L (22),

    For a response directly addressed to Sharyl Atkisson’s CBS report, check this link and the comments.

    The Hannah Poling case was originally part of the Autism Omnibus proceeding where all claims of autism caused by vaccination were lumped together for a collective decision. It was then separated out because Hannah has a diagnosed rare mitochondrial disorder which is not typical of autism.

    As I understand it, she had already had some health problems and received some vaccinations to try to catch up on the normal schedule. Unfortunately, after vaccination she developed encephalopathy which led to most of her ongoing problems. Encephalopathy is not typical of autism but it is established on the table of injuries as a rare side effect of vaccination. On that basis, it was decided to compensate her.

    Since the Hannah Poling decision, three test cases from the Autism Omnibus proceeding have been adjudicated by special masters. All three were decided against the vaccine-autism connection. Since these were presumably selected to be the cases with the strongest evidence for such a connection, the prospects for a decision supporting a vaccine-autism connection are much dimmer now.

    Not that this has stopped advocates of such a connection like Sharyl Atkisson from touting it as “evidence” in their favor!

  32. BVStaples

    Met a woman the other day: smart, attractive, well-mannered, she had seven (yes seven) kids with her, all hers, aged 0-10. She was PROUD of the fact that none of her children had ever received any vaccinations.

    I could have strangled her on the spot.

    How can otherwise normal folks be so backward on such an important issue? Of course if I had strangled her, I would have been arrested and found guilty of a heinous crime, while she, on the other had, walking around with seven weapons of mass destruction, is treated like some sort of societal hero.


  33. Gus Snarp

    @BVStaples – Read my comment above. Even if it’s not conscious, I think there’s some emotional trauma when your kid is terrified while getting shots that makes you more likely to believe it when someone who seems trustworthy tells you vaccines are bad.

  34. Heather (Elise's mom)

    Many school districts require teachers to get dTap boosters before they are eligible to work in classrooms. My university required it before I was allowed to student teach.

    At the same time, the nurses at my daughter’s oncology clinic were surprised to learn they needed boosters. I think there are a lot of good people who just don’t know.

    As the mom of an immune-compromised leukemia patient, I rely on the herd to keep my daughter alive. When the chemo is taking its biggest toll, we become hermits. It’s bad enough to catch a cold or the flu-we end up in the hospital and wait it out in hopes of avoiding secondary infections. Pertussis, measles, chicken pox-all of these vaccine preventable diseases? Well, they would leave my girl fighting for life on two fronts: cancer AND deadly communicable disease. We try not to think too hard about the odds.

    When is the last time you had to ask your kid’s playdates if everyone in the house is up to date on their shots? Flu season is coming up-don’t forget that one! My daughter doesn’t get to have playdates with very many kids.

    Check out for some vaccination inspiration. And maybe add some of your own!

  35. RMcbride

    Is there a way for us americans to bring suite against the anti-vaxxers? Or is this the sort of thing that only the goveernmnet can do? They’ve definately crossed the line from speech to yelling fire.

  36. fatkid

    Kat/#4- You should stand in front of a mirror before finding fault with others. It’ll make things alot clearer when you point your finger.

    It’s the “smart” people that should know better who irk me. The anti-vax movement has plenty of soccer moms that went to college to get their Mrs. degrees.

  37. RickK

    @31 Squirrelelite

    I really tried to comment on both of Sharyl Attkisson’s recent articles on the CBS News site. But the anti-vax crown keeps flagging my comments as objectionable, and they get taken down.

    Of course, the comments from, for example, the guy who thinks the Nazis still run the U.S. and that all medical literature is a vast fabrication – his comments are allowed to stand.

    And the comment from the Media Editor for Age of Autism – her comment stays.

    But when I cite respectfulinsolence or sciencebasedmedicine or neurologica or anything from the CDC – THAT’S not allowed.

  38. ktheswede

    I can’t agree more with the comments above about the amount of well-educated people that insist vaccinations for their kids are not an option for them. We are having a debate about how our employer is mandating that all of us employees get a flu shot this year. I work in a hospital. The amount of nurses and other “technical” or “support staff” that are adamantly against this measure is overwhelming. They are of the anti-vaccination crowd from what I gather. And this is for a FLU SHOT!?!?!?!

    My child was vaccinated, and continues to get her vaccinations that are recommended. I even was chastised for saying that when she gets to the college age that I will have her get the meningiococcal shot as well. The debate that has been going on about my employer’s mandate is unbelieveable. People are “claiming” that they are going home in tears every night, stressed out, and worried they will lose their job if they do not agree with the mandate. They can still opt out if there is a religious or health reason, but it must be proven by clergy or their doctor.

    Then on top of it, this anti-vaccination activist, Dawn Winkler, got on our site. Oh brother! I don’t know how she got into our discussion, but I don’t believe one word she says.

  39. How could you be Discover Magazine and NOT know the cause of this? It’s been in the news in the Southwest for several years. Part of the reason Arizona instituted the immigration bill that most people haven’t read and are assuming it’s some racist plot, is because of the tremendous PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS caused by illegal immigrants. If you try to immigrate into ANY country through legal channels and you are sick as a dog, they don’t let you, If you are walking or being herded across 120 degree deserts and aren’t eating well, AND come from a country where diseases like this are rampant, your immune system is repressed and you are a carrier.

    Not only are the hospitals in the Southwest inundated with illegal immigrant pregnant women who have put their lives and the lives of their unborn babies at risk by crossing the border in the last weeks of their third trimester; the hospitals and clinics in all Southwestern states have seen a rise in:
    1. Pertussis (Whooping Cough)
    2. Diptheria
    3. Small Pox
    4. Polio
    5. Hepatitis A, B, and C
    6. MRSA and C. Diff

    Arizona has become the whipping boy for trying to stem the tide of many of the negative aspects caused by 1,200 illegal immigrants A DAY coming across the border. Infants born are often infected already. Emergency rooms full of un-vaccinated illegal immigrants become a petri dish for more disease being spread. And hospitals, with limited funds and shrinking staffing are left to try and keep these diseases from the general population.

    But instead of support, Arizona is labeled racist. Our President SUES us. The border is still a sieve. And the thousands of miles of border that are in “National Preserve” Status are being overrun by cartels and human and drug trafficking.

    Unless and Until intelligent populations like the people who read Discover start to see this as a public health issue and stop the kneejerk “I heard a soundbyte on TV so it must be true” reactions, we will continue to see these diseases proliferate and we won’t be able to stem the tide.

    Please do research on this. Please go to state stats in the border states and look up the disease matrices. Please don’t buy into all the drama out there about the border struggles and realize we are at a crossroads, and we need to act now.

  40. Chris

    Okay, Ms. Tea Party, we really want to see actual evidence there has been an increase in smallpox! Oh, and that HepC, MRSA and C. Diff are vaccine preventable.

    Also, did you miss the comment #6 by Eduardo Sanchez? He said (knowing how you will not bother to go up and see):

    in Mexico this types of vaccines are free and compulsory to any kid, regardless if you beleive in vaccination or not…. in this cases “overruling your free will” if you don’t want your kid to be vaccinated i say is a good thing

    Want to try again to avoid that “racist” label? Perhaps with some real data?

  41. Lawrence

    Wow – my irony meter just exploded. Beth owes me a new one!

  42. Messier Tidy Upper

    Love this Youtube clip – ‘The Vaccine Song’ that the BA posted a while ago – if you haven’t seen it already then check it out :

    Its the best summary of this issue I’ve seen. :-)

    The stupidity of the anti-vaxxers and the criminally tragic consequences of their unfortunately all-too popular movement is enough to bring tears to my eyes. So much *&^%%$####@@#% needless suffering because of those &^%$%%###@@!!#@#$@# tools. :-(

    I do really wonder sometimes – Can ppl really be THAT STUPID?!


    NB. Speaking as a new uncle who held his brother’s month old daughter in his arms for the first time the other day. I would’ve done so earlier but I’ve had a cold so I’ve been doing the responsible thing & keeping away for her sake.

  43. LittleJim

    Dear Beth,

    Small Pox? Not the big ones then?

    Smallpox? _The_ Small Pox? (Sounds like a really spotty teenage angst band, doesn’t it?)

    The Small Pox that was the first and only human infectious disease so far to be wiped from the face of the Earth except for tiny medical samples held in heavily secured medical facilities due to massive, world-wide vaccination campaigns throughout the 19th and 20th centuries?

    That Smallpox?

    Yeah, [Citation Needed], I think…

  44. Jack van Beverningk

    Another victory for the anti-vaxers: another child that will never develop autism!

  45. Chris

    From her website:

    Beth Terry, CSP, is an International Professional Speaker, Author, and Corporate Trainer with offices in Phoenix and Hawaii. She is a Catalyst who creates a resilient mindset in your people, keeping you profitable, productive, and results-oriented. Find more about her at

    So she keeps you profitable by telling us that smallpox is back?

  46. Oh, look at the Teaparty. They love spreading misinformation, so people like Beth Terry will continue to make a buck.

    If you get regular health care, doctors will tell you to get a booster every ten years. That’s been the case since at least the ’70s if not longer.

  47. Leigh R.

    Heather (Elise’s mom)–if you are reading this–you are my heroes! (Not to mention Rob Masters and your late father.)
    Bravo for you all! (If we lived close to one another, my vaccinated kids and Elise could get together.)
    I can’t agree with vaccinations enough. I received my influenza, H1N1, and pertussis vaccinations last year when I was pregnant and am eternally grateful that I live in a civilized society where my children and I can get cheap or free vaccinations toward eradicating vaccine-preventable diseases like pertussis, measles, polio, and so on.
    I wrote an article a couple days ago, citing Phil’s article here, among other data like the CDC, Amy Wallace’s article, SBM/Dr. Gorski, etc., and I attempted to make just the point you did, Heather, about immunocompromised folks and herd immunity. Sadly, I’ve been utterly swamped by antivaxers since then. I’m afraid I went nearly ballistic when they talked about the “hundreds of thousands” of dead babies from vaccinations and “vaccine-injured” and how I was killing my children by getting them vaccinated. Sigh. Such an uphill battle, but definitely worth all the ad hominems they can bring. If anybody would perchance want to carry the banner for vaccinations–I’m only one woman with two small children and not able to refute the pages-long screeds and pseudodata of antivaxers full-time–I’d be much obliged ( It’s such an important issue that I am passionate about, but I assure you I personally will not back down regardless of the antivaxers’ tactics.
    Keep up the fight, everyone! Even laypeople like me believe in the efficacy of vaccines, so all is not lost.

  48. Beth

    Not everything that disagrees with you is Teaparty. And I’m not teaparty. I just live near ground zero.
    Your HuffPo has talked about the increase in CDiff and MRSA, this magazine has talked about the increase in Pertussis, CDC has talked about the need to screen all immigrants for all the diseases I listed. And those who can’t come through legal means are coming through illegal means. Just because you don’t like the information doesn’t make me a racist nor does it make the information false.


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