Tragedy in Adelaide this week as a 5 week old boy died from pertussis. South Australia is currently in the grip of a pertussis epidemic, with a 65% increase in the number of notifications for the period January 1 to June 15 2010, compared to 2009. This is first death from pertussis since 2001. Tragically, the boy was too young to be vaccinated.
The current childhood vaccination schedule is 2, 4 6 months and then 4 years of age for the triple shot pertussis, diptheria and tetanus (DTPa). Four babies have died from pertussis in Australia in the last 18 months leading authorities to consider reducing the age of first vaccination to birth. A national trial has begun in four states to test a whooping cough vaccine on five-day-old babies. About 100 babies are taking part and results should be released next year.
Professor Robert Booy, an infectious disease expert from the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance in Sydney, said “This is exciting research. If their preliminary results suggest that it might be beneficial the big study has to be done.”
“With these new vaccines we are trying to find out whether what we discovered 50 years ago can be replaced by a vaccine that starts within a few days of birth rather than two months from birth.”
Some state governments have offered free booster shots to parents and carers but the South Australian government has lagged behind. A story from Adelaide Now reports that SA Health chief medical officer Professor Paddy Phillips said the department was waiting for the release of a report into whooping cough vaccinations.
“There’s a Federal Government working party looking into the issue of subsidy for a whooping cough vaccine for adults … when that party reports, we will take up their recommendations,” he said.
It is not clear why red tape and bureaucracy are allowed to get in the way of the health of the state’s children. In the least the government has a responsibility to inform parents of the need for a booster even if they don’t want to pay for it. Vaccines for whooping cough wear off over time, but many parents and carers are not aware that they can potentially carry the disease and thus infect more vulnerable people, including children.
Those amongst us who are not able to be vaccinated are protected by “herd immunity” the concept that the vaccinated prevent the spread of disease in a community. This means that when you vaccinate yourself you are also protecting those more vulnerable. But herd immunity may be compromised in areas where vaccine coverage is low.
The Adelaide Hills district has a low level of vaccination compared to the rest of the country, coming 103 out of 114 divisions for the August 2010 quarter. According to figures from Medicare Australia only 87.5% of people in this area are fully vaccinated. Equal bottom for coverage was the Eastern Sydney Division of General Practice and the Northern Rivers General Practice Network (where the AVN are based) both with 80%.
North Coast Area Health Service director of public health, Paul Corben said, “Communities with low vaccination rates have had more than eight times the rate of disease seen in those areas with the highest vaccination rates”.
California is currently also in the grips of a whooping cough epidemic, which is about the surpass records for the worst ever. This year alone, over 4,000 people have been infected with the highly contagious bacterial disease and nine infants have died.