How Well Do Current Vaccines Protect Against Whooping Cough?
ALISON ST JOHN (Host): You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. I’m Alison St John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. California is experiencing its worst whooping cough epidemic in 50 years. Health officials have been saying the outbreak was largely due to people not being up to date with their immunizations. But KPBS reporter Joanne Faryon has discovered that two out of the three people in San Diego County who got the disease were fully immunized. So, Joanne, thanks for being here.
JOANNE FARYON (KPBS Reporter): Thanks for having me.
ST JOHN: How serious is this whooping cough epidemic?
FARYON: As you said in your intro, Alison, the worst epidemic in California in 50 years, more than 3400 people in this state have been diagnosed with the disease. Eight babies have died since January of this year because of whooping cough.
ST JOHN: So you looked into the number of positive cases in San Diego County and what did you find?
FARYON: Well, 332 positive cases in this county, 197 of those people diagnosed with the disease were up to date with their age appropriate whooping cough vaccines.
ST JOHN: So what does that say about the vaccine then?
FARYON: Well, that’s really the big question. There is a researcher in the Netherlands, Dr. Frits Mooi, who has been studying, actually, the vaccine, the whooping cough vaccine, and also changes that this – changes that the disease itself has undergone in the last decade or so. It’s his job in the Netherlands to study whether or not the vaccine continues to work over the decades. I spoke with him earlier about the statistics. I asked him, so do these numbers surprise you, and here’s his response.
DR. FRITS MOOI (Researcher, the Netherlands): And there’s recently been a outbreak in Ireland where they also describe that many vaccinated children were also infected, so I think this is not something specifically for California or United States. I think we are seeing that everywhere that vaccinated children whom you would not be expected – whom would not be expected to be infected get infected nevertheless.
ST JOHN: So, Joanne, how concerned are health officials here about the efficacy of the vaccine?
FARYON: Well, Dr. Mooi says a lot of the information, a lot of the research is really focused on waning immunity. In other words, people aren’t up to date. We’ve heard so much lately about adults being encouraged to get booster shots if they haven’t already and that this somehow could contain the epidemic. And Dr. Frits Mooi, you know, acknowledges that but what he points out is that bugs, bacteria, disease, they mutate, and when you start fighting them they fight back. So we’re fighting them with these vaccines but at the same time they’ve been fighting back and they’ve been changing. And his research has shown they’ve changed slightly but he believes it’s enough to perhaps cause this disease to still take hold in people despite being immunized. And, again, I asked him, well, you know, what is the research community saying? How are they responding to this? And, again, here’s his response.
DR. MOOI: On the whole, the vaccines are very effective but sometimes there are troubles and there seem to be some troubles now and then we – I think we have to be honest and try to find out what’s happening. And I think one of my frustrations has been all these years is that all the problems which have been also shaded with pertussis have been blamed on waning immunity, which I think doesn’t really explain too much while the other aspect, the pathogen, which has changed has been completely ignored, willingly ignored, and I think that’s not good science and it’s not good public health.
FARYON: And I do want to point out, Alison, that Dr. Frits Mooi, his research, his peer reviewed papers, have been published in the CDC’s journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, so a lot of his work can be found there, too, and it has been peer reviewed.
ST JOHN: So are San Diego County health officials aware of all this? How are they reacting to this?
FARYON: I spoke with Dr. Dean Sidelinger and he is the – he’s with the county, with the county health department. And I did ask him, you know, when you looked at these numbers, were you surprised? And here’s his answer.
DR. DEAN SIDELINGER (Deputy Public Health Officer, County of San Diego): It’s a little higher than we expected but, certainly, we do still feel the vaccine does offer protection and it is still an important public health tool to try and prevent this disease.
ST JOHN: So it looks as though, really, they need to do some more research about this vaccine, right?
FARYON: That’s what everybody can agree on, is that we need to be looking at better vaccines. I think everyone I spoke with said, look, we believe vaccines are safe, we think they do work but they’re not perfect. And perhaps it’s time to be putting more money into research that looks at newer vaccines that are more effective.
ST JOHN: So this raises quite a lot of questions right at a time when a lot of kids are just going back to school this week, Joanne.
FARYON: It does, and I have to tell you I’ve been working on this story for a number of weeks and what I’ve heard over and over, whether it’s been from the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, or from the California Department of Public Health that, really, that what they’ve wanted to talk about is winning immunity and booster shots. I think what’s different about this report and what we’ve learned with this data is that we might want to expand that conversation to not just, you know, people need boosters but are we doing what we can to make sure that we are look – researching new vaccines? Are we studying the efficacy of our current vaccines and are we looking at this kind of data? Are we actually looking at if kids are getting sick right now, if this is the worst epidemic in 50 years in this state, are we looking at why and looking at all the various angles? And I think that’s what Dr. Frits Mooi, what he expresses so much really concern about and frustration about is the conversation’s been fairly narrow up until now.
ST JOHN: Thanks, Joanne.
FARYON: Thanks, Alison.
ST JOHN: That’s KPBS reporter Joanne Faryon. Stay with us. Coming up next, as the economy struggles to recover, what are the chances jobs in the San Diego region will pay enough to support a family, not to speak of your own home.