Are We Safe from Vaccine-Preventable Illnesses?

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First Friday in First Person.  Imagine having your newborn baby, just over a month old begin suffering from what appears to be a cold with a persistent cough. The situation persists. Over a period of two weeks and several visits to the pediatrician the best diagnosis you receive is the croup or a virus. No remedies resolve the situation and your young daughter is not getting better. This is what happened to Alvaro and Myriam Fontan’s daughter Vanessa. They shared their ordeal in an April 2010 interview in The Vaccine War (a PBS Frontline production). During one particularly severe crisis, young Vanessa stopped breathing and turned blue.

In the emergency call to the doctor, Alvaro exclaimed, ”Tell me that this is normal. I mean, she’s turning blue.”

At the doctor’s advice, the Fontans rushed to the nearby emergency room but it was not equipped to handle pediatric patients so an ambulance had to transfer Vanessa to a children’s hospital where Dr. Cynthia Cristofani was on duty. Immediately she diagnosed the Fontan baby with Pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough. Finally, the Fontans received a diagnosis which had until now eluded them. This is probably because younger physicians are not coming across many vaccine-preventable illnesses during their training or practice. For Vanessa, there remained a long steady road to recovery, after spending nearly a week in the pediatric intensive care unit and another two months suffering through less severe crises as the antibiotics took effect and managed the bacterial infection.

What is Whooping Cough?

Cynthia Cristofani, MD the pediatric critical care physician in Portland, Oregan that treated Vanessa Fontan describes whooping cough. “Whooping cough is a particularly miserable disease. You cough and you cough and cough, and you cannot stop. Eventually you manage to inhale a little air, and that’s the whoop. And if you don’t inhale any air, you may pass out. If you do, you’re likely to make the noise of the whoop and throw up, and then a few hours later or even an hour later you do it all over again. These spells happen many, many times a day, and they’ll also wake you up in the middle of the night. So these people are sleep-deprived, miserable. They never know when the next attack is going to get them. Just the mechanics of the cough will hurt. Adults get rib fractures. It takes a pretty brutal cough to break your ribs. Little kids will get hernias; they’ll get rectal prolapse; they’ll get bleeding around the eye; occasionally they get bleeding in their skull; they’ll bite their tongues. They do all kinds of damage just from the mechanics of the cough, never mind the fact that these people are suffocating and miserable. In the [developing world], this is a huge killer. Somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 people die a year. In [developed countries], most people don’t die of it, with the exception of very young infants. People who have had no immunizations at all have very poor immune defenses. This is where most of the reported mortality in the United States happens.”

How did Vanessa Get Whooping Cough?

Vanessa was 40 days old when she was diagnosed with whooping cough. According to the immunization schedule of the time, she was too young to have received the vaccination. This left her dependent on the herd immunity that prevents many infectious diseases from attacking communities. Unfortunately, the original childhood immunization for Pertussis did not provide patients of that time with lifelong immunity. This may have played a significant role in the way in which Vanessa became infected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigation ultimately traced the whooping cough to a student who attended high school with Vanessa’s brother.

Although, vaccine-preventable illness occurs less often in the United States, it does not make these infectious diseases less dangerous. This is particularly true for the youngest and the oldest members of our community who have less robust immune system. Use our page of health guides to check the immunization schedules for 2011.

Learn more:  The Vaccine War on Frontline website at and The Vaccine War Transcript

One Response to “Are We Safe from Vaccine-Preventable Illnesses?”
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  1. […] Dr. Salmon who is the Director of Vaccine Safety at the National Vaccine Program Office of the Department of Health and Human Services presented statistics that underscored the immunization refusal trends.  In some counties throughout the country, as many as 25% of appropriately aged children have not been immunized.[…]

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