Whooping cough outbreak sparks vaccination debate

Dec 3, 2014

The recent outbreak of whooping cough was first spotted at Grand Traverse Academy.
Credit Peter Payette

A growing outbreak of pertussis – or whooping cough – has Grand Traverse County residents on edge. As the number of confirmed cases ticks upward every few days, some parents are pulling their children out of school.

The outbreak has renewed questions about parents who choose not to vaccinate their children. Are they putting vulnerable people at risk? Or exercising their right to keep their kids free of vaccines they see as unnecessary?

A difficult decision

Old Mission Peninsula resident Brian Gartland decided to pull his son out of the Pathfinder School because of the pertussis outbreak.

“My wife is suffering from brain and bone cancer so she subsequently has a weakened immune system due to the chemo that she’s taking,” explained Gartland.

Gartland’s wife has been in chemotherapy for nine months. One of the effects of her treatment is that she cannot receive vaccinations, including the vaccine for pertussis. If she were exposed to the disease, the complications for her could be severe – even fatal.

When the Gartlands learned that about one third of their son’s classmates had not been vaccinated for pertussis, they decided to take both their children out of school, even though they’re both up-to-date on their vaccinations.

“We don’t want them to get it at all and we certainly don’t want them to bring it home and give it to my wife, which would greatly complicate things,” said Gartland.

Gartland blames the spread of the pertussis outbreak on parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. And these days, there are a lot of parents who, for various reasons, do not vaccinate their kids.

Gartland is hopeful that the resurgence of outbreaks of diseases like pertussis might change a few of their minds.

“I sure hope that this gets out the word that (vaccines) really are safe,” he said.

The debate over vaccine safety

Mary Tocco operates the website childhoodshots.com, where she sells DVDs and other materials warning parents of the dangers of vaccinating their children.

She said the pertussis vaccine is definitely not safe.

Tocco cites a 1985 book called “DPT: A Shot in the Dark.” The book claims the pertussis vaccine used at the time caused seizures and a range of neurological diseases.

Tocco says it’s better for parents to rely on natural remedies – like herbs, oils and nutrition – to prevent and treat illnesses like pertussis. She accuses public health organizations of purposefully spreading misinformation about the pertussis vaccine.

“This is what I call propaganda,” she said. “Because Lord forbid that they admit that their vaccination is failing to protect and that those that are vaccinated are the ones who are having the outbreaks.”

'Herd immunity'

The Grand Traverse County Health Department says pertussis is unusual, in that the vaccine is only 100 percent effective for about 70 percent of people. The department notes, however, that for the 30 percent who may end up with pertussis despite being fully vaccinated, the symptoms of the disease are far less severe.

Health officials says it’s important for the general population to get its vaccines in order to provide “herd immunity” to those who cannot be vaccinated. But many parents are seeking waivers from schools to allow them not to vaccinate their children.

Jame McCall is director of student services for Traverse City Area Public Schools. She said about nine percent of TCAPS students have waivers.

“For the students that are just not up to date – but there’s really no philosophical reason for that – I think we will see an increase in making sure children’s vaccines are up to date,” said McCall. “As far as the philosophical reasons, I don’t know that we’ll see a change in the practice of parents.”

For Brian Gartland, the debate over vaccines shouldn’t be a debate at all.

“This is a situation where we can’t really agree to disagree,” said Gartland. “Everyone needs to come together as a community and get their vaccinations, if they can, because they’re protecting the more vulnerable people, like my wife. I think if people (could) see it in that light then they’d be willing to get their vaccines.”