The Pulse
12:00 am
Fri August 17, 2012

What’s the Plan for Whooping Cough?

I blogged earlier this summer about a pertussis (whooping cough) outbreak in Rhode Island and a growing number of cases throughout the country (see the latest from the RI Dept. of Health). There were some indications then that the vaccine was losing its efficacy. But that may not be the full picture.


From a June 2012 presentation to the National Vaccine Advisory Committee.

A new article in the New England Journal of Medicine offers some more perspective. First, the author says, there’s more awareness of the illness among doctors and the public since the launch of some public health campaigns. More awareness means more cases are reported. Next, there’s evidence that some pertussis strains have mutated, making the vaccine less effective. Also, we now have better tests for pertussis, meaning more cases are detected. And finally, the author cites some evidence that the vaccine is not as potent as needed and may need to be given more frequently. But we still don’t know exactly why there’s been such a spike in cases.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be vaccinated. National and state health agencies still recommend getting vaccinated and receiving the appropriate boosters. That includes adults, especially those who might be spending time around babies, who are particularly susceptible.

For the bigger picture, I checked the latest from the US Dept. of Health and Human Services’ National Vaccine Program Office.

There may not be enough evidence yet to update the pertussis vaccine again (the current version looks like it was updated within the last 10 years). But the reemergence of pertussis as a problem is definitely on the national radar screen.

What’s more, a new national vaccination plan has just been developed (the implementation plan should be out soon) with input from the Institute of Medicine, that includes finding better and faster ways to develop new and retool older vaccines. But with so many competing priorities, limited dollars, and the labor-intensive process of developing vaccines, it can be difficult for health agencies to figure out what to focus on. That’s why the IOM is currently developing a software model to help researchers and policymakers prioritize which vaccines to work on.

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