Parenting group bans unvaccinated adults

May 23, 2012 at 3:50 PM ET

By Diane Mapes

The recent whooping cough (pertussis) epidemic in Washington state has prompted the parent support group PEPS to issue a new policy regarding participation in their groups.

"Because of the pertussis epidemic in Washington, PEPS put a policy in place requiring that adults participating (or leading) PEPS groups have the Tdap booster and that babies have the DTaP vaccine," says Dana Guy, marketing manager for PEPS (Program for Early Parent Support).

A DTaP vaccine helps protect young kids against three diseases: diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis; the Tdap booster does the same for adults and older children. Infants can't be fully immunized until after 6 months of age so they are are particularly susceptible to the disease, which can cause permanent disability and even death. That's why health experts recommend the adults around them be vaccinated, a process called "cocooning."

The state's current epidemic has sickened nearly 1,500 people (up from 134 during the same time period in 2011), with health officials calling the numbers "staggering." Although no deaths have been reported in Washington state, nearby Idaho has had 31 cases of pertussis, including one infant death.

Pertussis -- sometimes referred to as the "100-day cough"-- is a highly infectious respiratory disease that causes uncontrollable, violent coughing. It killed 5,000 to 10,000 Americans a year between the 1920s and the 1940s, when the vaccine went into use. It is readily identified by a "whoop," the sound a person makes while gasping for breath after a severe coughing fit.

Most people receive the pertussis vaccine during childhood, however, a 2011 study issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that Washington state has the highest exemption rate for vaccinations in the country, with 6.2 percent of kindergartners handing in a parent-signed exemption form for one or more vaccines due to health or philosophical concerns. Oregon and Vermont also have high rates of exemptions; all three states have seen a spike in the disease during the last few years.

The Illinois Department of Public Health recently issued a mandate requiring all students entering sixth and ninth grades be required to provide proof that they've been vaccinated against pertussis, starting with the 2012-2013 school year. A similar law went into effect for 7th through12th graders in California in June of 2011. California suffered an outbreak of pertussis in 2010, with more than 9,000 cases and 10 infant deaths.

More information about pertussis in Washington state can be found on the Department of Health website.

What do you think of the PEPS decision? Has the issue of vaccination affected any of your friendships and if so, what did you do? Tell us on Facebook.

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