Unvaccinated Kids Getting Whooping Cough

Children of Parents Who Refuse Vaccines More Likely to Get Whooping Cough

By Jennifer Warner
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

May 26, 2009 -- Children of parents who refuse to give them vaccines are more likely than fully immunized kids to get whooping cough, according to a new study.

Researchers say the number of parents refusing to vaccinate their children is on the rise, and this study demonstrates the risk of the bacterial disease, also known as pertussis. The results also showed that 11% of whooping cough cases in a general pediatric population of Kaiser Permanente of Colorado were attributable to vaccine refusal.

"This result dispels one of the commonly held beliefs among vaccine-refusing parents: that their children are not at risk for vaccine-preventable diseases," researcher Jason M. Glanz, PhD, of Kaiser Permanente Colorado wrote in Pediatrics.

Although the number of parents who refuse immunizations is small, researchers say that number has increased over the past decade and may be contributing to a rise in the preventable disease cases in children.

According to the CDC, although the number of whooping cough cases have been rising since the 1980s, the numbers are still 97% lower than when the vaccine wasn't available.

Why Some Parents Refuse Vaccines

Researchers say that now that many of the vaccine-preventable diseases, such as whooping cough, smallpox, and polio, have become rare, parental concern "seems to have shifted from preventing disease transmission to vaccine safety."

The researchers write that "Some parents believe vaccines 'overload' children's immune systems and cause chronic illnesses."

Although no vaccine-autism link has been proven, fears of a vaccine- autism link have prompted parents to refuse some or all of the recommended immunizations for their children.

Researchers say other parents believe their children are at low risk for infection and that many vaccine-preventable diseases are not serious.

Vaccine Refusal Raises Disease Risk

The study looked at records of children 2 months to 18 years old enrolled in the Kaiser Permanente Colorado health plan from 1996 to 2007. During the study, 156 lab-confirmed cases of whooping cough were reported. They compared these children to 595 children who didn't get whooping cough.

Researchers found that children of parents who refused vaccines were 23 times more likely than vaccinated children to get the infection.

In addition, another analysis among 27,748 young children from 2 to 20 months old with 31 lab-confirmed cases of pertussis, there was a similar increase in disease risk among children of parents who refused the whooping cough vaccine.

Overall, 11% of whooping cough cases in the total population were attributable to parents' refusal of vaccines.

"These findings stress the need to further understand why parents refuse immunizations and to develop strategies for conveying the risks and benefits of immunizations to parents more effectively," the researchers write.

Glanz, J. Pediatrics, June 2009; vol 123: 1446-1451.
News release, American Academy of Pediatrics.
WebMD Feature: "Child Vaccines: Some Parents Ill at Ease."
WebMD Health News: "Autism, Measles Vaccine: No Link."
CDC: "Pertussis (Whooping Cough) Questions & Answers."
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