The number of parents opting out of having their kids vaccinated against whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is on the rise, according to a recent report. This is resulting in an increase in whooping cough cases statewide.
In 2012, New York state saw the highest number of whooping cough cases in decades, with more than 3,000 cases confirmed statewide.
Upstate communities were no exception, with more than 100 cases reported in Erie, Monroe, and Onondaga counties.
Now, researchers at the SUNY Upstate Medical University have found that the increase in cases corresponds with an increase in the number of parents opting out of vaccinating their children.
Lead author and pediatric infectious diseases specialist, Dr. Jana Shaw, says this presents a danger not only to the unimmunized children, but the broader public, too.
“The children who were not immunized against pertussis pose a risk not only to themselves, but also the children and the community residing around them,” she says.
New York state mandates that children attending its schools are immunized against a range of diseases, including pertussis.
But, parents are allowed to opt out of the vaccinations for two reasons; religious beliefs, and medical causes.
The study found in the past decade that the number of parents in the state seeking religious exemptions from the whooping cough vaccination has almost doubled.
“It’s a very troubling trend, and anything we can do to promote vaccination I think is the best [thing] we can do for our community,” Shaw says.
She also suspects the reasons for some exemptions are not purely religious.
“We know that parents often choose not to vaccinate their children when they’re concerned about vaccine safety, vaccine efficacy, they’re worried about a number of shots that the children are getting,” Shaw says.
More education needed
Additionally, Shaw says parents often don’t know how serious diseases like whooping cough can be, and school children are particularly at risk.
“I think lack of education is a very important problem here," she says. "Also the fact that parents do not see those diseases anymore because vaccines have been so successful is, in a sense, a problem. You know vaccines are often quoted as victims of their own success, meaning that they are so effective at protecting us from those deadly diseases, and now we don’t see those diseases and people are starting to wonder whether people need a vaccine."
She says misinformation on the Internet can cause doubt about vaccines too.
Upstate counties had less exemptions
Around the state, the rates of religious exemptions varied from county to county. The study showed most upstate counties had relatively low rates of religious exemptions. But there were some exceptions.
“The upstate area counties, they were counties of relatively low religious exemptions," Shaw says. "The counties that had high exemption rates in New York state includes; St. Lawrence county, Lewis, Seneca, Yates, Tompkins, Allegany, those areas are counties of high exemptions and those counties had higher rates of pertussis as well.”
St. Lawrence County, among those with higher rates of vaccination exemptions, has experienced a recent outbreak of the disease. According to the county office of public health, there are 12 confirmed cases of pertussis in the area already.
Shaw says vaccinations are crucial, particularly for school-aged children, if we want to keep vaccine-preventable diseases under control.
“If not enough children are immunized we’re going to break the herd immunity and we will start seeing vaccine preventable diseases such as pertussis and measles again,” Shaw says.
She says outbreaks like the one in St. Lawrence county, and those seen in California are evidence of a disease comeback.