By Dr. Richard Rupp and Bridget Hawkins

Vaccine Smarts usually runs every other Tuesday on the editorial page. This week’s column mentions an ongoing case.

Dear Vaccine Smarts:
There was an outbreak of whooping cough at my daughter’s high school.

We received a letter saying she needs a course of antibiotics. She is up to date with all of her vaccines, including whooping cough. Why does she need antibiotics?

A concerned parent
Galveston

Dear concerned parent,
We are well aware of the whooping cough case at your daughter’s school. So far, there has been only one student in Galveston identified with the disease.

That fact is actually a testament to the power of vaccination. The majority of the students at the school are vaccinated. If they hadn’t been, we guarantee there would be many more cases.

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a nasty disease. Babies are at highest risk. They can develop pneumonia, seizures and may even die.

Affected children and adults may have a cough that lasts for weeks, which is why the Chinese call it the “100-day cough.”

The cough frequently disrupts sleep, leads to missed work and school and may even result in broken ribs. Antibiotics don’t help with the cough once it develops.

Unfortunately, vaccines do not protect 100 percent of those vaccinated. The Galveston student with pertussis had actually been vaccinated.

Yet outbreaks across the United States have become more frequent. In 2012, 48,277 cases were reported to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of the cases were in people who had received the pertussis vaccine.

Scientists are trying to identify the reasons for the rise in pertussis. Some have theorized it may be due to changes in the strains, but there really isn’t a lot of evidence to support this view.

There is better evidence, however, that the rise may be due to the vaccine itself. The new “acellular” vaccine is less effective than the old “whole cell” vaccine. The new vaccine only contains a few components from the pertussis bacteria.

The older vaccine was made from the entire dead bacterial cell that includes several hundred different bacterial chemicals.

However, the whole cell vaccine caused irritability, fatigue and fevers in many infants, so it was replaced with the acellular vaccine, which rarely causes issues.

It makes sense that the whole cell vaccine would be more effective because exposure to all of those bacterial components could lead to a stronger, more complete immune response.

What has become increasingly clear from research is that refusing to vaccinate puts entire communities at risk.

We do want to point out the problems associated with this incident at your daughter’s school.

The school’s administration was tasked with communicating information about the case to parents. Staff and students in close contact with the infected student needed to obtain a prescription for antibiotics from a health care provider. We acknowledge that this one case has resulted in a lot of work and expense for many people.

But keep in mind that we’re talking about the health of the children in our community. There is nothing more important.

Our hearts go out to the student who is suffering from whooping cough and wish him or her a speedy recovery.

Dr. Richard Rupp is a pediatrician and member of UTMB’s Sealy Center for Vaccine Development. Bridget Hawkins, Ph.D., is the assistant director of the Sealy Center for Vaccine Development. This column is supported by a UTMB President’s Cabinet Award to provide information about vaccines. Visit www.utmb.edu/scvd/vaccinesmarts for information.