Journalist Infuriates Readers While Reporting On Massachusetts Whooping Cough Outbreak

A CBS Boston-affiliated journalist with WBZ-TV's I-Team is under public scrutiny for the recent coverage of the whooping cough outbreak in Falmouth, Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In one high school, 15 children have become ill with whooping cough. All of them were vaccinated, but the journalist focuses on unvaccinated children as the cause of the outbreak. The article has been shared almost 9,000 times as of Tuesday evening and many of the comments from readers that follow the story are almost brutal. The author arguably missed her mark on accuracy, but it's a common problem when it come to reporting on whooping cough. The author quoted someone who should be considered a reliable source, but one specific issue had parents pointing out other discrepancies in the whooping cough outbreak article.

This particular vaccine debate is fraught with misinformation from well-meaning advocates on both sides, but with so many social shares on the the controversial article, I feel compelled to argue the validity of some of the key points in the the WBZ-TV News article. The current whooping cough vaccine, in contrast to the whole-cell vaccine that we used to use, has a less than stellar efficacy record and it should be made abundantly clear when reporting on outbreaks like the one in Massachusetts. The CBS Boston article excerpts being refuted are quoted, followed by an explanation of why so many commenters are upset.
"Massachusetts is one of just 18 states that allow a parent to exempt their children from vaccines on philosophical grounds."
That's not a true statement, according to the CDC database. Vaccine exemptions fall into three categories, and vaccine refusers usually know them well: Medical, Religious, and Philosophical. Massachusetts only allows parents to file medical and religious exemptions, not philosophical exemptions.

Just in case the CDC wasn't up to date, I checked other sources. The National Conference of State Legislatures also reports that Massachusetts does not allow for philosophical exemptions. The state's website also clarifies that only medical exemptions submitted with a form filled out by a physician and religious exemptions are permitted to waive vaccines like the one for whooping cough. The state's health department makes it even more clear by stating, "Philosophical exemptions are not allowed by law in Massachusetts, even if signed by a physician. Only medical and religious exemptions are acceptable."

"'Pertussis, otherwise known as whooping cough, in California there have been over 1,000 cases in the past decade, and over 10 deaths, mainly in young infants,' Dr. Daley says.

California has 38.33 million people in it. Losing ten children is awful; however, these numbers are exceptionally low, statistically. What the author might have also written was that in the last decade, California lost 0.000026 percent of its population to whooping cough. Still, Dr. Daley's numbers indicating that one percent of those who got whooping cough in California ended up dying from it didn't seem right, so I checked with the State of California.

Over 8,000 whooping cough cases have already been reported with an onset this year in California, and sadly, one infant died. Thankfully, of the cases this year, only 74 people in California have required intensive care, as of the latest available data. Most of the pediatric cases have been in older children and teens.

In 2013 there were 1,904 cases, and no deaths were reported, though two deaths will be added to the final 2013 tally, according to the State of California, because deaths are counted from the year of onset. In 2012, there were 1,023 cases and no deaths. In 2011, there were 3,013 cases and no deaths. According to the State of California, over 9,000 cases of whooping cough were reported in 2010, and ten people died from it that year.

That means from 2010 until this year, there have been around 23,900 cases reported. Certainly, many more went unreported. I counted 13 deaths (not ten deaths) during this time span. That's a death rate after reported infection (of those infected) of around 0.05 percent (not one percent).

In the CBS Boston author's defense, whooping cough statistics can be confusing if you just look at articles and ask doctors. Even the CDC will often quote death rates in its articles on whooping cough that includes death rates from third world nations where nutrition is exceedingly below industrialized nations' standards and health care is almost non-existent. In the author's defense, she was simply quoting the Chief of Pediatrics at Cape Cod Hospital.

"No one knows for sure why exemption rates are so high on the Cape."
Well, they don't know "for sure" why, but they do have a pretty good idea. According to the National Network for Immunization Information, when compared to undervaccinated children, unvaccinated children were more likely to have an older mother who is married and had a college degree. The households were more likely to be located in neighborhoods with average household incomes exceeding $75,000. In Cape Cod, 55 percent of the households are married and only 21 percent of the households have children. Meanwhile, 66.5 percent of the people hold a college degree. The average household income is over $84,000.

"None of these vaccines are 100 percent effective and there is some waning of effectiveness over time," said Dr. Daley.

None of them are, but especially not this one. More importantly to this story, though, whooping cough is believed to have also changed genetically so that it has stronger pertussis toxin. Researchers in the Netherlands, according to Science News, suggested that the whooping cough vaccine we now use might be responsible for this genetic change in the bacteria. Our vaccine has possibly made whooping cough more dangerous. A study in Infection Control Todayannounced this year that "strategies used to date have not completely eradicated strains of the bacteria, instead leading to an increase in diversity."

The American Academy of Pediatrics reported that researchers found that during the 2009 and 2010 whooping cough outbreak, the teenagers who had gotten the current acellular vaccine had a six-fold higher risk of contracting whooping cough than the teens who had been given the older whole-cell vaccine. The researchers blamed "waning immunity." While none of the vaccines we get are 100 percent effective, the whooping cough vaccine is even less effective than others and is a cause of great concern for officials.

Should we consider going back to the whole-cell vaccine because it was more effective? As younger children and teens are contracting pertussis, older adults who were vaccinated with the whole-cell vaccine are maintaining very low infection rates.

"'These kids who are unimmunized are at risk for serious diseases and spreading it to others,' Dr. Daley says."
When unvaccinated children become sick with whooping cough, they are contagious until they have been on antibiotics for five days. Without antibiotics, they are contagious not longer than three weeks. As written in a previous article in the Inquisitr, a government whooping cough vaccine study from last year pointed out that vaccinated children might realistically be spreading whooping cough. In that study, baboons vaccinated with the current vaccine didn't actually get sick after being exposed to whooping cough, but they had high levels of whooping cough bacteria in their respiratory system and were contagious for five weeks after that, according to NBC.

"It could explain the increase in pertussis that we're seeing in the U.S.," Tod Merkel, an FDA researcher, said after hearing of the disappointing results. Granted, that's only baboons. You can't deliberately expose a human to whooping cough for a research study.

In Massachusetts, would the I-team rethink its accusatory stance towards unvaccinated children if, indeed, vaccinated kids were walking around Falmouth High School contagious for weeks and asymptomatic, while other vaccinated teens in the school were simultaneously experiencing waning immunity?

[Photo via still of video report from CBS Boston]