Getting to Know Whooping Cough Up Close

Journalist Julia Ioffe is having a close encounter with Bordetella pertussis, the bacterium that causes whooping cough. It doesn’t sound like she’s enjoying the experience:

At this writing, I have been coughing for 72 days. Not on and off coughing, but continuously, every day and every night, for two and a half months. And not just coughing, but whooping: doubled over, body clenched, sucking violently for air, my face reddening and my eyes watering. Sometimes, I cough so hard, I vomit. Other times, I pee myself. Both of these symptoms have become blessedly less frequent, and I have yet to break a rib coughing—also a common side effect. Nor do I still have the fatigue that felled me, often, at my desk and made me sleep for 16 hours a night on the weekends. Now I rarely choke on things like water, though it turns out laughing, which I do a lot of, is an easy trigger for a violent, paralyzing cough that doctors refer to not as a cough, but a paroxysm.

Whooping cough has been declared an epidemic in Washington state and Texas. It has seen a more than threefold rise in 21 states across the nation. Ioffe knows who to blame (and she can be forgiven for being a bit cranky at the moment):

How responsible are these non-vaccinating parents for my pertussis? Very. A study recently published in the journal Pediatrics indicated that outbreaks of these antediluvian diseases clustered where parents filed non-medical exemptions—that is, where parents decided not to vaccinate their kids because of their personal beliefs. The study found that areas with high concentrations of conscientious objectors were 2.5 times more likely to have an outbreak of pertussis. (To clarify: I was vaccinated against pertussis as a child, but the vaccine wears off by adulthood, which, until recently, was rarely a problem because the disease wasn’t running rampant because of people not vaccinating their kids.)


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