Investigating An Epidemic
Monday, December 13, 2010
SAN DIEGO Last month I took an unexpected trip to Amsterdam. Ironically, it was not California’s Proposition 19 (the ballot initiative that would have legalized marijuana) that led me there, but the state’s whooping cough epidemic.
Let me explain.
Before this summer, what I knew about whooping cough, I learned as a new mother when my son was immunized as an infant. I knew he needed three shots before he was six months old to be protected from the illness as a baby. I didn’t know how dangerous the disease could be to infants, I just knew immunizing him could spare him from getting sick.
Now, 13 years later, after a state-wide epidemic has killed 10 babies, infected thousands, and lasted far longer than health officials had ever expected, I know more about the dangers and complexities of whooping cough than I should. After all, this is a disease that was nearly wiped out when I was a kid in the 1970’s. Whooping cough or pertussis, is a respiratory illness caused by bacteria. It can be deadly to young babies and debilitating to adults. KPBS began reporting on the epidemic in early summer. By late summer when news releases indicated many of the children getting sick were up to date with their immunizations, we decided to look at the data. Who was getting sick? Were they immunized?
Our first stories appeared in early September. Nearly two out of three people who got whooping cough in San Diego County were immunized. It raised enough questions for our newsroom to probe deeper and ask the Watchdog Institute at San Diego State for help in collecting state and national data on the epidemic. Was this a trend outside of San Diego and what did it mean?
The four-month, KPBS-Watchdog Institute investigation led us to UCLA, Sacramento and most recently to The Netherlands. In November, with five bags of Skittles in my suitcase, I traveled to Amsterdam. The Skittles were the only request producers at Radio Netherlands Worldwide made in exchange for a day with a camera crew.
RNW’s mission is to provide news and information worldwide in 10 different languages. Getting to the bottom of a public health crisis not isolated to California fit this mission. I traveled with video journalist Marijke van den Berg to the Netherlands Center for Disease Control, or RIVM, in Bilthoven.
We interviewed one of the leading experts on the disease, Dr. Frits Mooi. Mooi believes he knows one of the reasons whooping cough has re-emerged, not just in California, but worldwide. The bacteria has evolved and become less sensitive to the current vaccine. In fact, the new strain of pertussis is more virulent.
“We don’t know how effective the current vaccines are against the new strains,” Mooi said.
However, in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and the California Department of Public Health have been reluctant to accept this theory.
American officials cite waning immunity as the leading cause of the epidemic. Mooi says that explanation is “trivial” and doesn't explain the whole story. He believes we need better vaccines.
The data and research KPBS and the Watchdog Institute have collected calls into question the efficacy of the current vaccine. We also discovered vaccine policy is being influenced by doctors and scientists with financial ties to pharmaceutical companies which make the pertussis vaccines.
During our four month investigation, we also met with families affected by this disease, including a baby boy who was diagnosed with whooping cough when he was just two weeks old.
Stay tuned to KPBS.org, KPBS FM , and watchdoginstitute.org for our reports. We’ll air a special TV report Thursday Dec. 16th on KPBS TV at 9:30 pm, When Immunity Fails: The Whooping Cough Epidemic.