The Capitol Record

Whooping cough epidemic ‘not quite over’ in Washington state

Mary Selecky

Mary Selecky

I talked with Washington’s Secretary of Health, Mary Selecky, today about the whooping cough epidemic, the effectiveness of vaccines, and why the state was hit so hard. The full interview will air on this week’s edition of “The Impact.”

Selecky declared an epidemic in April as a record number of cases of whooping cough spread throughout the state.

Health officials recently announced the spread of the disease appears to be slowing, with some areas of the state returning to pre-epidemic levels. Washington state has already recorded more than 4,500 cases of whooping cough so far this year — the highest number of cases since the 1940s.

In a normal year, Selecky said the state would see about 10 cases a week. Now, the health department is recording between 20 to 30 cases a week. “So it’s not quite over,” Selecky said.

Selecky said there was no “singular cause” for the epidemic. Whooping cough outbreaks come in cycles every five to seven years, she said. “What we saw this year is that this bug was more virulent, or attacking more folks,” she said.

There’s also the problem of “undervaccinated” children who don’t get the full series of vaccine shots (all kids under the age of 5 have to get five shots), or children who aren’t vaccinated at all by their parents for philosophical reasons.

But there’s another reason: the vaccine may be wearing off too fast.

This summer, a team of federal scientists investigated the outbreak. They suspect that the current version of the whooping cough vaccine is weaker than the older version.

“The vaccine we’re using is very effective, but the question is how long does it last?” said Selecky.

An advisory committee is looking into whether another booster shot may be necessary to fill the gap. In the meantime, people should still get the vaccine because if they do catch whooping cough, the symptoms will be less severe if they’ve been vaccinated, Selecky said.

Here’s video of the interview with Selecky:

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