More than 90 percent of Oregon children are vaccinated against pertussis, more commonly known as whooping cough. While this might be construed as a sufficient percentage, there’s new evidence that indicates it’s not enough to keep the illness from spreading.

Why is pertussis so dangerous?
Once thought of as a wintertime illness, pertussis has become a year-round concern.
It is a highly contagious, bacterial respiratory illness that causes such powerful, uncontrollable fits of coughing that older patients can break ribs or burst capillaries in the eyes. It can cause children to have seizures, while babies, who cannot cough that hard, can stop breathing and die.

“Whooping cough is increasing in prevalence in children and especially in under-vaccinated states, like Oregon,” says Dr. Pilar Bradshaw.

In a recent study published in The Journal of Pediatrics, two epidemiologists involved in the Oregon Immunization Program took a closer look at the state’s 2012 whooping cough epidemic. They found that unvaccinated children were three times more likely to get the illness than vaccinated kids, and they were more likely to spread it.

“People who don’t vaccinate often have friends who don’t vaccinate, so it’s essentially like pouring gasoline on a flame; and whooping cough shot through the community, greatly accelerating the wide-spread nature of that outbreak,” Dr. Bradshaw says.

Vaccinations protect a community
When vaccination rates drop, community-wide protection—known as “herd immunity“—shrinks.

For example: If you have a group of 100 people and 99 are immunized against an illness, the one person in the middle of the “herd” who decided not to vaccinate is probably safe, because the germ is likely not going to be able to get a foothold in that group.

“If you compare that to a herd where 20 people out of 100 decide to immunize, then the other 80 are at risk. That’s where the germ is going to attack, and that herd is not going to be as safe or as immune to that bug,” says Dr. Bradshaw.

It’s recommended that 6- to 8-week-old infants receive an initial dose of the DTaP vaccine, which protects against pediatric diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular pertussis. For a complete vaccine schedule, click here.

Pre-teens and teens should receive a Tdap vaccination, and adults should be vaccinated every 10 years, especially for those who will be in close contact with a newborn, such as grandparents, siblings or child care providers. Pregnant women should also receive the vaccine.