Whooping Cough Returns to Marin As Officials Woo Vaccine-Dodging Parents

Vaccination rates are up but don't count for needed booster shots as whooping cough makes an expected return.

If a measles outbreak that prompted a statewide crackdown on vaccine exemptions wasn’t enough to dissuade Marin County anti-vaxxers, could a whooping cough outbreak finish the job?

Likely not, but it does appear to be down to a stubborn few. And, along with a forgetful or weary bunch of parents, they appear to be helping whooping cough spread to susceptible kids. 

More than 100 cases have been reported in Marin County in 2018 so far — far ahead of the 44 tallied in 2017 and 30 cases in 2016. To be fair, whooping cough is cyclical in its outbreaks and 264 cases were reported in 2014 when it last came around.

But after Marin caught nationwide attention for its 2015 measles outbreak — in which unvaccinated children returned from Disneyland’s outbreak with the first case of measles in the county since 2001 — it was forced to confront its vaccination doubters. A 2015 state law, SB 277, removed personal exemptions as a vaccination requirement for schoolchildren and the immunization rate went up.

Health officials breathed a sigh of relief this school year as Marin County’s vaccination rate hit 93 percent after a low of nearly 78 percent during the 2011-2012 school year. However, the medical exemption rate increased tenfold to two percent.

Another issue is that these rates are for kindergarteners, who need booster shots to keep vaccines effective in the following years. That’s where the outbreak of whooping cough, or pertussis, has been thriving, according to Marin County pediatrician Dr. Nelson Branco.

“Either it’s a time issue, based on what year you have your check-up, or they have decided to defer and [get] put on a catch-up,” Branco said. “Then there’s some who have no intention of vaccinating their kids.”

What doesn’t help is that there are physicians who will sell medical exemptions to defiant parents — which puts children with compromised immune systems who truly can’t receive a vaccine at the most risk to contract the disease. To remind parents that vaccines save lives, Marin General is hosting a seminar for local parents on Tuesday with local health officials and keeping up the information campaign.

“SB 277 did a lot to engage parents to get good science-based information,” Branco said. “We still want people to be making decisions on information.”

Before Marin’s measles outbreak helped turned California into 2015’s laughingstock, Branco decided to add a policy for his patients to have the vaccination for measles by age two. It became a chance to address parental concerns and, in the end, roughly 20 of the 150 patients who did not have the vaccine by the right age left the practice.

“I welcome questions about vaccines because I want parents to make decisions about their children’s health with good information,” Branco said. “Vaccines save lives. That’s why we vaccinate.”

The seminar begins at 6 p.m. at Jason’s Restaraunt in Greenbrae. For more information on immunization in Marin County, visit Marin Health & Human Services online.

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