As a child, I had all my shots. My parents, having lived through polio epidemics, were firm believers in vaccination. I had the standard battery of immunizations — which was a lot smaller than it is now — including the dreaded MMR shot and the oral polio vaccine. I also had the recommended number of doses of the DPT shot.
DPT stands for Diphtheria, Pertussis, and Tetanus. The “D” and “P” part of the vaccine were supposed to protect us for a lifetime. Tetanus immunity has to be renewed every ten years, but having the mandated doses of diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine were supposed to keep a person safe from these diseases for the rest of their life.
Well, back in 2006, decades into my “lifelong immunity,” I got pertussis.
I don’t know how I got it. And I don’t seem to have passed it on to anyone else, thank God. There was no outbreak in the area either before or after my case, and to the best of my knowledge I was never in contact with anyone who was sick. But come down with it I most certainly did. And let me tell you, it was the sickest I have ever been in my life.
This is what “whooping cough” is like
It started out mild. I thought I had a cold — stuffy nose, cough, just a hint of a fever — but it didn’t go away within a few days like a cold generally does. It hung on for nearly two weeks.
And then things really got bad.
The cough got worse. I never developed the stereotypical “whoop,” which is really a gasp for breath at the end of a coughing fit, but I felt like I was trying to breathe thick soup. By the end of the second week I was coughing so hard that I thought I might literally crack a rib. I had broken blood vessels in my eyes. I had strained muscles in my neck. My abdomen was covered with bruises from the force of the coughs. I thought I had pneumonia. I really thought I was going to die.
It wasn’t pneumonia.
It was pertussis — whooping cough — and though a round of powerful antibiotics can make you less contagious once you’ve got it, there’s no real treatment but to let it take its course unless you have complications.
I was lucky. Within two weeks the cough began to get better, and by three weeks after that it was gone. In some cases, a cough can persist for many more weeks or even months. All in all, I was sick for about seven weeks, and the weeks of the most intense coughing fits were the worst two weeks of my life.
How did I come down with this disease when I was fully immunized? I might have just been unlucky. There are actually two strains of pertussis. The first, Bordetella pertussis, is the variety we vaccinate against. There is a second, usually milder form called Bordetella parapertussis, and this strain has no vaccine.
Cases of B. pertussis have been on the rise for years, though. And a recently released study shows that it’s because the vaccine does very little good.
When the CDC admits that a vaccine is ineffective, you know it’s bad
Clusters of pertussis cases crop up across the country every year. They’re generally pretty small outbreaks and fairly easily contained. But the number of cases has been steadily increasing since the 1990s, and in 2010 California had the worst pertussis outbreak in 50 years. It was especially puzzling because 80% of the kids who got sick were fully vaccinated. And even more strangely, most of them were 10 or 11.
Kids get 5 doses of the pertussis vaccine — with a new and improved mercury-free formula now called DTaP — by the time they’re six. Those over six should have been immune, and the fact that 10 and 11-year-olds were the most affected suggested that the vaccine wears off after a few years. So they started giving a “booster” DTaP to kids entering 7th grade — that is, at 11 or 12.
Then in 2014, the state had an even bigger outbreak. This time, 10 and 11-year-olds again made up a large number of cases, but it was 14 — 16-year-olds who were hardest hit. These were the very kids who’d gotten the booster shot.
Something weird was definitely going on.
Scientists set out to investigate, and what they found has forced even the CDC to admit that the modern pertussis vaccine just isn’t very effective.
What’s next, a yearly pertussis shot?
The original vaccine — the DPT shot that most of us had when we were kids — had been around since 1912. It’s one of the few vaccines that Big Pharma admits sometimes had serious side effects and in the 90s, the formula was changed. The new version, known as DTaP, is what all the sick kids in California had. And since the DTaP was introduced, the number of pertussis cases has risen each year.
There’s a good reason why. No, kids aren’t getting pertussis from the shot, no matter what you might hear. What’s happening instead is that immunity is wearing off at an alarming rate. The studies have found that protection drops by about 42% per year after the original series of shots, and lasts only about a year after the booster. Some public health experts are now recommending that instead of a booster, we save the vaccine for when outbreaks actually happen or when we think they’re about to occur.
What should you do if there’s pertussis in your area?
- Avoid contact with anyone who’s sick, of course. Pertussis is spread through coughs, sneezes, and soiled tissues.
- Keep your immune system strong. Get plenty of rest, eat well, and use supplements.
- If you think you may have pertussis, DO see a doctor. Although treatment mainly consists of fluids and rest, pertussis can have serious complications like pneumonia and severe dehydration, and even broken ribs. Antibiotics, also, may make you less contagious even though they don’t shorten the duration of the disease.
As the number of people who’ve only had the newer, weaker vaccine rises, pertussis is going to make a comeback. Given Big Pharma’s track record, I think it’s likely that when it does we’ll see a push to get a yearly pertussis shot along with a flu shot.