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Pertussis Outbreak At Seattle High School Prompts Recommendation For Booster

Roosevelt High School, Seattle.
Flickr Photo/Joe Wolf (CC-BY-NC-ND)
Roosevelt High School, Seattle.

After 13 students at Roosevelt High School in Seattle came down with whooping cough, Seattle Public Schools looked at their records and saw they had all been immunized against the highly contagious, bacterial illness.

If they were vaccinated, how did they contract whooping cough, or pertussis?

KUOW’s Marcie Sillman spoke with Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson of Seattle Children’s Hospital who said that vaccines may wear off more quickly than previously thought.

“We think somewhere around 80 percent who get the immunization are ultimately protected,” Swanson said. Those in the 20 percent are dependent on others getting immunized so that the illness doesn’t spread.

Swanson said the vaccine changed decades ago to curb nasty side effects, such as high fever and seizures that came from high fever. As a result, the vaccine is less effective than it was, she said.

“We’re also learning that we think immunity -- or the memory that our bodies have to a vaccine -- is waning faster than we thought,” she said. Shots believed to last 10 years may last between two and 12 years, she said.

The pertussis vaccine is given to babies at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months and 15 months – and right before kindergarten. Now 11-year-olds receive a booster, as do pregnant women.

Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, of the King County/Seattle Department of Health, emphasized that pregnant women should get a booster in their third trimester.  

“The most vulnerable are children below one year of age, about half of whom will be hospitalized if they get pertussis,” Duchin said. “It’s to protect these young children that we vaccinate against pertussis in the first place."

ParentMap magazine has run several articles about mothers who did not receive a booster shot – in some cases because their doctors did not recommend them – and who passed whooping cough to their children.

Whooping cough has killed children in Washington state. It’s also miserable for teens and adults. Swanson said affected adults have coughing fits that last more than three months.

Read Wendy Sue Swanson’s post on this subject at her blog, Seattle Mama Doc, hosted by Seattle Children’s Hospital.

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