Health experts: Lack of vaccinations leading to spike in pertussis, measles

SPOKANE, Wash. - According to the Washington State Department of Health, the state has the highest rate of schoolchildren not receiving vaccinations.

Six percent are not vaccinated compared to the national average of just 2 percent.

Health experts believe parents opting out of vaccinating their children is what's contributing to the recent rise in diseases like pertussis and measles.

Already this year, there have been more cases of pertussis –- or whooping cough as it's commonly referred to -– than in the entire year of 2011. The epidemic threshold for our state is between 57 and 125 cases, and in the first five months of the year there have been 1,008 cases of pertussis reported.

The disease is recognizable by the "whooping" noise children make as they gasp for air between coughing fits. Some infants will turn blue as they cough because they aren't getting enough oxygen. In some cases the disease can be fatal.

"You see them cough to the point of vomiting. It was a lot of nights of cleanup and drinking a lot of water and getting a lot of rest," Julia Miller said.

At 3 and 5, both of Miller's children contracted pertussis.

"They did real well with it. They went through all the stages. It was at time as a parent you just think 'Aw man, am I doing the right thing?'" Miller said.

Vanishing vaccinations

Her uncertainty was brief because Miller firmly believes that she did the right thing by not vaccinating her son and daughter.

"I know that I have had a couple of friends that have said, 'What are you thinking?' but at the same time I try to let them know this was our reason, based on these things and I outline them," Miller said.

Miller's decision is rooted in her medical background. As a chiropractor, she sees our bodies as being created capable of fighting these diseases naturally:

"The goal is to sustain the integrity of the spinal column, the brain and the spinal cord. Being the central nervous system, it controls everything the body does, and if you can sustain that balance in immunity then you're going to have a more well-rounded immunity rather than a compromised immunity, which is sometimes led by vaccinations, which is what I've found in my research," she said.

Miller's concept is a tough one for most to grasp and that is why there is a contentious divide among parents who vaccinate and those who don't.

At the Spokane Regional Health District, there is no question that vaccines are safe and neccesary. Kristi Siahaya, the immunization outreach coordinator at the Health District, says everyone who can get vaccinated should.

"The hardest part of my job is talking to parents one-on-one, because they have stories and they truly believe what they see and they're really scared and I have to say as a new mom I was scared, too. It's a scary process to go through," Siahaya said.

Armed with stacks of research, Siahaya can refute any argument against vaccination. She said there is no medical evidence that vaccines cause autism and that it's a one-in-a-million chance a child will die from receiving vaccines.

"We can relate some vaccines to injuries, possible seizure activity or some kind of systemic issue like that," Siahaya said. "Fainting is the No. 1 thing that happens."

Siahaya said the most troubling new trends are the diseases that are making comebacks.

"Pertussis is huge this year, and measles is seeing a huge rise across the country," Siahaya said.

She said there are a few reasons why this is happening and cites kids not getting vaccinated as one. Unvaccinated children can expose the entire community to these diseases – including people who can't get vaccinated due to compromised immune systems.

Siahaya said waning immunity is also a problem. If you were vaccinated as a child, it doesn't mean you're immune as an adult. The vaccines can wear off, making you susceptible to a disease.

Even more alarming, adults with waning immunity that catch pertussis do not show classic signs of the disease, which means they can unknowingly pass it to a child.

"We had two children die of pertussis last year, two little kiddos, because they couldn't [be vaccinated], they were too young," Siayaha said.

With pertussis and measles making comebacks, some doctors are closing their doors on patients who are not vaccinated.

"There are some that just won't have them in their practice," Dr. Kristi Rice said. "I think that it's the time that it takes to explain why you need to vaccinate and probably the risk to the other kids, too."

Rice accepts all patients – vaccinated or not – but said it's the doctors right to refuse to see a child who is not vaccinated. She does her best to educate parents and more often than note can convince them that vaccination is the right path.

"Parents are a lot more hesitant than they used to be, and even in the last four or five years, we've spent more time discussing why we vaccinate, what the diseases are and trying to relay some of their fears, too," Rice said.

She said most parents come to her with questions about the safety of vaccines, such as do they cause seizures. Rice said an ingredient used in the past did cause seizures, but that it's not used anymore. She is also asked if vaccines cause autism and says there is no medical evidence that it does.

Rice said she wishes all parents would vaccinate their children.

"It would make our jobs easier, we'd ensure that the entire population would be safer, too," she said.

Her request is unlikely, with a growing number of parents arming themselves with information about vaccines outside of their health care provider. Miller, whose kids contracted and survived pertussis, is one of those parents.

"One of the most dangerous vaccines out there that I've been told and researched has been pertussis and that was one of the biggest things we were against," Miller said.

Her unvaccinated kids mingle with others at school every day. To do this, they must have a waiver. Last year, Washington State mandated that every parent who doesn't vaccinate their children be first educated by a health care provider and then sign a waiver that says they understand the risks and benefits of immunization.

"When the kids ask, I just let them know basically your immune system is designed a certain way and with the way the immune system battles these diseases, it's better if your body can do it without injecting something into your system that might compromise that," Miller said.

We have decades of research that shows immunization has wiped out diseases that once killed hundreds of thousands of people from polio to measles and diphtheria. Now, a growing group of parents say vaccines aren't necessary.

"It has a lot to do with the fact that we aren't see the disease as much, so it doesn't seem that it's as scary," Siahaya said.

Perhaps it will take decades more research to know the lasting effects of having that choice.

"My hope is that it doesn't take children dying to win the battle, that's my hope," Siahaya said.

And hope we're doing the right thing.

"I think there's hope, and it's always a good feeling if you can educate somebody and having them be confident about why we give vaccines now and feel good about giving their children vaccines," Rice said.

"I hope one day that we can get to the point where we can just support our bodies naturally and in some form, whether that be eliminating vaccines or not," Miller said.

A main theme from both sides interviewed for this story is education. From the Health District to parent Julia Miller, everyone wants parents to research reasons why you should vaccinate and reasons why you should not. It's getting the facts from all sides that will help parents make the right choice for their family.