Hey, remember whooping cough? The disease that, thanks to the dilligent use of vaccines, was all but eradicated in the United States by 1976? Fewer than 1,000 cases of the disease were reported that year. But anti-vaccine hysteria has resurrected the disease known by the less fun-sounding name of pertussis. Here in Texas, where some megachurches suggest members not vaccinate their kids, we’re feeling the heat of the outbreaks. In Tarrant, Dallas, and Denton Counties—substantially-populated counties nearest the Eagle Mountain Church in question—there have been over 800 reported cases of whooping cough. (Tarrant, nearest to the church, has nearly twice as many reported cases as Dallas, despite nearly 600,000 fewer people.)
Correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation, of course, and the problem isn’t strictly relegated to North Texas. Every corner of the state has seen whooping cough outbreaks: nearly 200 each in the Rio Grande Valley, the Houston and Austin areas, and 36 even as far west as El Paso.
It takes a long time and a lot of bad information for there to be an outbreak of a seemingly-eradicated disease like whooping cough. A 1981 British study seemingly found a link between the whooping cough vaccine and brain damage (at a rate of one for every 310,000 vaccinations). Since then parents have panicked, and by 1983, the number of instances in the US, which had held steady since the mid-70s at a number between 1,000-2,000, never dipped below 2,000 again. In 1990, the year the American Medical Association concluded a more complete study that determined that there was no link between the vaccine and brain damage, the number was 4,570. By 2012, throughout the country, the number had swollen to 41,880.
But nobody wants to be responsible for giving their child brain damage, and the odds of contracting an all-but-eradicated disease like whooping cough are slim anyway, right? Which is how it worked for years, until the early 2000s, when the unvaccinated mean that the disease is no longer all-but-eradicated. Between 2003 and 2004, the number of cases reported in the US more than doubled from 11,651 to 25,827.
And thus a deadly disease that infected 120,000 US citizens in 1950, and 1,000 in 1976, could reach well over a thousand Texans in 2013—with more than three months left to go this year.
At its height in the 1930s, whooping cough was 150 times more deadly (and 4,400 times more communicable) than the brain disease that, for more than twenty years, we have known that the vaccination doesn’t even cause. Meanwhile, the word “epidemic” is being used to describe whooping cough in Texas. Maybe it’s time to go ahead and vaccinate your kids again.
(Pertussis bacteria image via Flickr)