Texas is on track to experience the worst whooping cough outbreak that the state has seen in 60 years, according to health officials. The state’s health department issued a health alert on Tuesday, encouraging residents to make sure their vaccinations are up to date.
Whooping cough — also known as “pertussis” — is a bacterial infection that results in a severe cough. It’s very contagious, and can be spread through the air when people sneeze.
“This is extremely concerning. If cases continue to be diagnosed at the current rate, we will see the most Texas cases since the 1950s,” Dr. Lisa Cornelius, the infectious diseases medical officer for Texas’ Department of State Health Services, said in a statement. “Pertussis is highly infectious and can cause serious complications, especially in babies, so people should take it seriously.”
Texas is illustrative of the larger situation in the rest of the country. Last year, the United States experienced the worst whooping cough outbreak in decades. Health officials say that’s partly because Americans still aren’t getting their recommended shots. Because the pertussis vaccine wears off after about 10 years, it’s particularly important to contain whooping cough by staying on top of the vaccination schedule.
However, pervasive myths about vaccines have dissuaded many parents from following the Centers for Disease Control’s recommended immunization schedule. The false notion that vaccinating children could put them at risk for autism is still undermining public health efforts today, even though that theory was widely debunked years ago.
Texas has recently experienced the direct consequences of that type of fear mongering. In addition to the whooping cough outbreak, the state also faced an outbreak of measles last month. The state’s epidemiologist traced the outbreak to an evangelical megachurch whose pastor preaches against vaccines, encouraging parents to pursue faith healing and use their own judgment instead of listening to doctors’ advice. Even though measles has been practically eradicated thanks to the vaccine that’s now available for it, the congregants at that church were an unvaccinated pocket that allowed the disease to be re-introduced to the state.
Now, health officials don’t want the same thing to happen with whooping cough, and are urging residents to get their shots. “Fathers, siblings, extended family members, medical providers and others who will be around newborns should also be vaccinated,” a recent press release from Texas’ Department of Health explains. “Many babies get whooping cough from adults or older brothers or sisters who don’t even know they have the disease. While symptoms are usually milder in teens and adults, pertussis can be life threatening for babies because of the risk of apnea, an interruption in breathing.”