Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Austin leads Texas in infant whooping cough cases

EDITOR'S NOTE: One of five final projects the Spring 2013 Data Visualization class for the University of Texas School of Journalism.

By Jean Jihyei Yoo, Gefei Liu, and Harrison Lindsey

Click to see interactive.
In 2012, the number of whooping cough (pertussis) cases among infants in Texas surged, with Travis County having the highest number of cases in the state.

Newborns cannot receive the pertussis vaccine until they are 2 months old, making them susceptible to the disease in their very critical first few weeks of life. Doctors encourage anyone who may to come in contact with an infant, to get vaccinated so they do not unknowingly pass the disease onto the baby. The disease is especially detrimental to infants since common symptoms such as cough or fever are extremely hard to detect. About half of the infants with pertussis are hospitalized and in extreme cases, the disease can lead them todeath.

“Their breathing becomes more labored and they’re susceptible to other bacterial pneumonias when they have pertussis, and the lungs get very stiff and there’s inadequate gas exchange, and ultimately they die of pneumonia,” Dr. Jeffery Kahn, MD Ph.D, said, Professor at the University of Texas Southwestern medical school and pediatric disease specialist.

Data from the Texas Department of Health Services shows that Austin’s Travis County had 79 infant pertussis cases last year, which was the highest number of cases among major counties in Texas. Also, Travis had the smallest number of infant population [2010 Census] but also the highest percentage of infants that contracted the disease.

Dallas County was the second highest with63 cases, Harris County in Houston third with 43, and Bexar County of San Antonio with 21 cases.

“I honestly think it’s because of Austin’s more liberal culture,” Dr. Julie Grimes, MD said. “People aren’t just against the whooping cough vaccine here; they’re against vaccinations in general. I think that’s why it’s such a problem in Austin compared to more conservative areas like Dallas and Houston.”

But the surge in pertussis cases in 2012 wasn’t unexpected. In 2009, Travis County had a large number of pertussis cases with a total of 104 cases. But that number decreased continually until another resurgence in 2012.

“The disease surges every three of four years,” Dr. Kahn said. “Last year we had a surge, and this year will have a little less amount of cases, but it will continue drop and then we expect another surge in 2015-16.”

One of the reasons for the three to four year surges is the lack of education the public has on the disease. Doctors hope to change that with a continuedeffort in educating parents about the vaccine.

“There’s a cycle because of the push for vaccinations that we doctors give as the disease begins to trend upward again,” Grimes said. “It will spike like it has been in 2012, then we really crack down on parents that come through our practice, and then in the next couple of years it will subside. The goal is that we have all doctors constantly educating parents of the disease and the importance of the vaccine.”

A recent study from the Journal of American Medical Association says that 98% of children who receive all five doses of the whooping cough vaccine before kindergarten were protected from the disease.

With pertussis surges lasting three to four years, vaccinations are key to the health of newborns. If Austin wants to improve their rate of cases relative to their population size, more education and efforts should be made. 


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