Discussion of Discover Magazine’s Article “The Broken Vaccine”

I recently read a 2013 article in Discover Magazine about the pertussis vaccine. I wanted to discuss this article because the author chose to end it in a curious manner. In other posts, I have noted a similar occurrence. The following is a brief summary of the article.

The author, Melinda Wenner Moyer, begins by discussing Seth Fikkert, a 30 year old hospital worker recently diagnosed with pertussis. Seth “had gotten his adult booster for pertussis, the bacterium that causes whooping cough, only a year before, so it was highly unlikely that he had the infection” or so he thought. She later writes about a seven month old recently diagnosed with whooping cough. She notes that “despite his persistent cough, he was holding up well, possibly because he’d already had two doses of DTaP, the childhood vaccine for diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis.” Lastly, she interviews “the director of the Skagit County Health Department, Peter Browning, (who) says his 13-year-old son caught pertussis early in the outbreak, but since he had been immunized, Browning didn’t suspect it.”

She brings up some key points:

  • Pertussis had a far higher death toll (10 times higher) than smallpox or (12 times higher) than measles in the pre-vaccine era, killing 4,000 Americans.
  • We are having the worst resurgence since 1959 with nearly 40,000 cases.
  • The vaccinated are getting pertussis at an alarming rate, with 73 percent of kids aged 7 to 10 who caught pertussis last year in Washington State—where the infection hit particularly hard—had been fully vaccinated. And 81 percent of adolescents had not only had full childhood vaccinations, but also a booster shot.
  • An ongoing CDC investigation suggests that, like the childhood vaccine, the adult Tdap booster lasts only a few years at most.

Moyer brings up further evidence of the ineffectiveness of the vaccine, and even mentions a controversial theory that could explain this: The pertussis bacteria may have adapted to it, much like bacteria become resistant to antibiotics. In a way, the article could be construed as being overly supportive of the pertussis vaccine. While the author accepts the idea that the Tdap lasts only a few years at most, in the first child mentioned in the article, the vaccine doesn’t appear to have lasted for four months. And for the adolescent and the hospital worker, their boosters appear to have lasted for a year at the most. So, overall, we get a picture of a failing vaccine, that does not prevent infection (and a later CDC study shows that the recently vaccinated can actually spread pertussis).

Amidst all of this, she exonerates those individuals who do not choose to vaccinate themselves or their children from being responsible for this outbreak. “The resurgence is not the fault of parents who haven’t immunized their kids. ‘We don’t think those exemptors are driving this current wave,’ Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Now, here is how the article ends: “Still, it is crucial to vaccinate as many people as possible, says Gary Goldbaum, the health officer of the Snohomish Health District in Everett. Unprotected people are much less likely to encounter the infection if most of the population is protected.” For the final thought, she quotes Goldbaum again,  “If we are serious about trying to protect the most vulnerable, the rest of us have to be fully protected too.” The sentiment would make sense, if the vaccine provided adequate protection. However, the entire point of the article is that it does not provide adequate protection.

Given more recent information, that recipients of the pertussis vaccine can spread the illness for up to 6 weeks (see my blog post or visit the FDA website and their summary of the study), Goldbaum’s statements make no sense at all. However, many people (doctors, public health officials, and media included) continue to make similar statements regarding the pertussis vaccine, though they are not scientifically justified. If most of our Public Health Officials are not up to date on information regarding the pertussis vaccine or are drawing incorrect conclusions from the current information, how can we expect them to be able to protect the health of the public?

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