Health Matters: Whoopee

January is National Hot Tea Month and National Oatmeal Month and celebrates Nothing Day, Play God Day (a.k.a. pretend to be a doctor day), and Humiliation Day.

Now January is also Pertussis Month, during which dozens of cases of this disease were treated in San Juan County. While you were likely given the pertussis vaccine in your childhood, nowadays, many children are not being immunized. That along with the fact that this vaccine wears off naturally, in our early teens, makes this disease a greater threat than it has been for many years. Pertussis does not causes serious disease in healthy adults, but infected adults can pass it on to non-immunized infants in whom it can be life-threatening.

Pertussis is also called “whooping cough” because a child sick with this disease coughs so hard that they “whoop” when they violently inhale to catch their breath, not unlike the sound I make every morning when I wake up gasping for air. However, nature wisely provided our house with a bulldog, “Austin,” who upon awakening releases gas, thus balancing the overall inflow and outflow of the gasses. Granted, all told, it is a near death experience, but how can I argue the wisdom of nature?

The wisdom of nature is also used by medical science to keep us healthy. When you are infected by a virus or bacteria, white blood cells tear it apart and present the pieces to other white blood cells that specialize in the production of antibodies. Later when you encounter that same microbe, your body has its weapons already assembled for battle and the microbe is killed before it has a chance to establish an infection. Vaccines work virtually the same way. A disassembled microbe is presented to your immune system in the form of a small shot beneath the skin. Once again the immune system assembles its weapons for any future encounter. Vaccines employ your own natural immune system. That is why they are so powerful and safe.

Sadly, without proof, some trust has been lost in vaccines. Years ago concerns were raised about MMR and other vaccines that contained the preservative thimerosal as being a cause of autism. Doctors and scientists from the Immunization Safety Review Committee, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Institute of Medicine reviewed millions of cases of pediatric immunizations and found that thimerosal, the MMR vaccine, and vaccines in general do not raise the risk of autism. In the case of pertussis, the risk of a young child dying is about one out of two hundred cases, while the risk of a life threatening side effect from the vaccine is about one out of 100,000, a five hundred fold difference. Contrast that to the near certain risk of death from an early-morning exposure to Austin, for which there is no vaccine.

Vaccines protect immunized individuals and they protect a community of people if a large enough percentage of that community has been immunized. When the percentage drops below a certain threshold, the disease can spread rapidly. San Juan County has dropped below that threshold, so our young children are at higher risk.

Community immunity depends upon community participation. To compensate we are now re-immunizing adults. If you have not had a tetanus shot for two years, you are eligible for a tetanus/pertussis booster.

If you develop cold-like symptoms or a cough, I encourage you to get the pertussis test from your doctor. The test involves sliding swabs up both nostrils and leaving them for twenty seconds, during which time you and I will pretend to have a perfectly normal conversation.Just remember it is for the kids.