Whooping cough, like many other diseases, seems like something from the past. Which is why I was rather shocked when my boss, a fellow global health advocate, was diagnosed with whooping cough (pertussis) for the second time in five years.
Pertussis has an extremely effective vaccine that has been around for decades. Despite relatively high immunization rates in the U.S., pertussis cases have been on the rise in the U.S. with over twelve states reporting an increase in cases already this year. When outbreaks happen, communities are activated to head down to their local clinic to get vaccinated which is the most effective way to prevent pertussis by boosting immunity in adults, and reach previously unvaccinated populations.
Though my boss had a pretty dismal few weeks, I wondered if she felt a bit like a method actor by experiencing one of the diseases we advocate to prevent by living through it. It made me think of a few things:
Firstly, it reminded me of the importance of basic vaccines. When I say basic, I’m referring to the traditional group of immunizations recommended worldwide and introduced as a “package” by the WHO in 1974. Amongst many of us, these basic vaccines have lost their shiny, brand new luster when compared to new and exciting vaccines against leading killers of children worldwide: pneumonia and diarrhea. After all, most people don’t know what pertussis, diphtheria, and other diseases really are - which is a credit to the effectiveness of vaccines. But their success may also be a downfall. Decreasing importance in the public arena can lead to a sense of complacency that “things are completed and over.” In reality, new babies are born every day that need to be vaccinated - and they are usually the most at risk for dying of these diseases. The WHO estimates that the “basic” vaccines prevent close to 2.5 million deaths each year. Without them, our work would certainly not be done.
Secondly, though mini-outbreaks of pertussis may not be extremely deadly in America, they can be for children around the world without access to the vaccine. The WHO estimates that almost 200,000 child deaths due to pertussis could have been prevented by the vaccine in 2008. This is in part because while most American children may be vaccinated against pertussis and other basic diseases as a part of a routine check-up, 19.3 million children worldwide did not receive full vaccination against pertussis (as a part of a diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine). These children may lack access to basic vaccines due to poverty or how far they live from a health facility, amongst many.
While it is unfortunate as an adult to come across a relatively obscure disease like pertussis, it is more unfortunate that millions of children each year do not have access to the fundamental form of protection against these diseases. As a result, 1.7 million children die of a vaccine preventable death each year, which makes up 20% of child deaths worldwide. What is even more troubling is that if these children are unable to access basic vaccines in their first years of life, are we sure they’d be able to reach treatment should be infected? Troubling thoughts indeed.
While my boss has finished her course treatment to get rid of her pesky cough, I’m reinvigorated to continue ACTION’s advocacy on vaccines - not just the shiny and new, but the older, tried and true ones as well. No child should die from a disease which could have been prevented by a vaccine.