Pertussis and Herd Immunity

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An epidemic of whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is sweeping through the children of Marin. This is tragic because pertussis is 100 percent preventable, and would not be able to come into our community if more parents chose to vaccinate.

All of the theoretical and scientifically invalid risks that parents use to justify their decision not to vaccinate children, are not real, but this whooping cough outbreak is real.

Children are sick. Infants are at risk of dying. Children are missing school. Parents are missing work. Children are undergoing painful tests. All of this is real, and none of it is necessary. Parents who refuse to immunize their children aren't making a choice just for their own kids. They are undermining what's known as herd immunity, defined as "the immunity of a group or community: the resistance of this group to invasion and spread of an infectious agent, based on the resistance to infection of a high proportion of individual members in the group."

The recent rise in pertussis is a direct result of Marin losing its herd immunity. Recently, I have seen more cases of whooping cough in one week than I have seen in my entire eight year career. The majority are in vaccinated children whose natural immunity to pertussis is waning over time. None of these kids would contract whooping cough awaiting their booster shots if more parents in Marin were responsibly vaccinating their children and maintaining our community's herd immunity.

This is our opportunity to educate those parents who haven't vaccinated their children, especially those who use this outbreak as proof that the whooping cough vaccine doesn't work.


The pertussis vaccine does work. What doesn't work is withdrawing your child from the larger health community and forcing all of the other children to live in a community with no herd immunity.

If anything productive comes from this epidemic, it will be that more parents vaccinate as they realize the real risk of a disease like whooping cough.

With a Perspective, I'm Dr. Rachel Bauer.