The great northwest of the U.S. is known for its natural beauty. It’s also a high-tech region with a highly educated public – not exactly the kind of place one would expect to fall for the anti-science rhetoric of the anti-vaccine movement.
But it has. The anti-vaxxers have convinced a frighteningly high number of parents in Washington State to withhold vaccines from their children. A story in The Seattle Times last year reported that:
“Washington [state] parents are choosing not to vaccinate their kindergartners at a rate higher than anywhere else in the country.”
This despite the fact that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (formed by the founder of Microsoft, which is headquartered in Seattle) is one of the world’s leading sponsors of vaccine research.
When the vaccination rates drop, everyone becomes more vulnerable to infectious diseases. When more than 90% of the population is vaccinated, we have “herd immunity” – this means the disease can’t spread because there aren’t enough susceptible people in the community. So the high rate of vaccine refusal in Washington makes it easier for whooping cough (and other diseases) to spread.
The media has been complicit in spreading some of anti-vaccine misinformation. Sometimes it comes straight from the media itself, such as the credulous, anti-science, anti-vax CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson. Other times it comes from talk shows, magazines, or even airline advertisements that provide a platform for anti-vax celebrity doctors such as Jay Gordon (who gained fame as Jenny McCarthy’s son’s doctor) and “Dr. Bob” Sears, who has published his own “alternative” vaccine schedule in a book filled with anti-vaccine nonsense. These characters continue to claim, at every chance they get, that vaccines cause autism (as Gordon has said, repeatedly), or that they cause other harms, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They use their medical degrees and their faux concern “for the children” to frighten parents into keeping their kids unvaccinated.
And now we learn that the U.S. is in the midst of the worst whooping cough epidemic in 70 years. One of the most hard-hit states is Washington, which the CDC just announced (on 20 July) has suffered 2,520 cases so far this year, a 1300% increase over last year. This is the highest number of cases reported in Washington since 1942. This plot of the number of cases this year compared to last year shows the dramatic rise in infections:
Making things worse, it seems, is an increase in cases among children aged 13-14. Children get a booster shot at age 11-12, but the new outbreak indicates that the effectiveness of the booster may not last very long. The dramatic increase in whooping cough this year also suggests that the bacterium that causes it, Bordetella pertussis, is mutating to make the vaccine less effective. Nevertheless, the CDC emphasizes:
“Vaccination continues to be the single most effective strategy to reduce morbidity and mortality caused by pertussis. Vaccination of pregnant women and contacts of infants is recommended to protect infants too young to be vaccinated.”
This good advice is seriously undermined when misinformed doctors such as “Dr. Bob” Sears directly advise pregnant women not to get the whooping cough vaccine, as he did in the Huffington Post. (Hint: it’s a good rule to be very skeptical of celebrity doctors who go by their first name.)
I should also point out that whooping cough is a national problem, not just Washington State’s. The U.S. has had over 17,000 cases this year, putting it on track for the worst year since 1959. The highest rate of infection in the nation is in Wisconsin (which has also been hit hard by anti-vaccine effects), followed by Washington and Montana. 10 deaths have been reported, mostly in infants who were too young to be vaccinated. For all this, we can thank the anti-vaccination movement.