GUY RAZ, host:
Kindergarten is also a kind of a bio lab for germs, normally nothing to be too concerned about. But in California, the state's Health Department is confronting the worst outbreak of pertussis. It's also known as whooping cough, the worst outbreak in 50 years. More than 2,700 cases have been reported so far this year and seven babies have died.
Now, this is a condition that was all but eliminated by a vaccine, but more and more children aren't getting the vaccination for a variety of reasons. And doctors say that the whooping cough outbreak still hasn't reached its peak this year.
Dr. Harvey Karp is a world-renowned pediatrician. Many parents will know his book, "The Happiest Baby on the Block." And he explained why the disease is so dangerous for young children.
Dr. HARVEY KARP (Author, "The Happiest Baby on the Block"): It's dangerous for little kids, it's not so dangerous for big kids. As a matter of fact, for a lot of adults, you might just have a bad cold and a cough that lingers. And that's the only sign of whooping cough you have.
But the younger you are, the smaller your windpipe is. And with whooping cough, you get a very thick tenacious type of mucus. When that develops in children, they can close off their breathing tube, and they cough so hard literally, they can't keep anything on their stomachs. They have to be on IVs because they're coughing so hard, and they can even cough so hard that they get brain hemorrhage and die. And that's the number one way that these kids die other from brain hemorrhage or they develop severe pneumonia.
RAZ: Why is this the worst outbreak in California in 50 years? Why is it happening now?
Dr. KARP: Well, I think it is in part because of parents not having their kids immunized, and it's in part because the immunity of people who were immunized earlier has waned. That's the other big issue that's going on now, which is that by the time those kids grow up, 10, 11, 12 years of age, they - even though they got their shots as babies, they may have no immunity left.
They're spreading it around, then the parent brings it home to their young child. So back in 2005, we started an initiative to have all older children and adults vaccinated as well so we could develop this thing called herd immunity. Get enough people immunized in the community so that the chance of bringing it home to your child is going to be greatly reduced.
RAZ: Do - I mean, I had not known, for example, about the booster shot. Why isn't that information out there? I mean, I would assume that many adults in this country don't know that they should get a vaccination for this.
Dr. KARP: Well, I think that that's the physician's responsibility, that doctors, especially pediatricians, aren't doing a good enough job. Because you go into the doctor's office for your child's care and your pediatrician should be telling you, hey, Guy, you and your wife should be getting immunized as well. So, that, I think, is the responsibility and the burden of the public health department to do a better job communicating that.
RAZ: Why do you think the public relations battle when it comes to vaccination seems to be on the losing side right now?
Dr. KARP: Well, I think that, number one, parents are very busy. They're overburdened. They're working hard, working double jobs. I mean, it's really a burden to have to be a parent and then also have to be a biochemist and have to decide, read the literature, you know, what vaccines are good, what vaccines aren't good.
In the background, we have these increasing incidents of autism, which is incredibly frightening. Then you have talking heads on the media saying it may be related to vaccines. So, all of that have topped parents in their tracks from wanting to take any chance that they were going to expose their child to something that might be dangerous. I totally understand that and sympathize with that.
The good news is we have a large body of information out to show zero association between vaccines and autism. But we do need to try to help parents figure all of this information out so they can make sense and make the best decisions for their kids.
RAZ: That's pediatrician and child development specialist Dr. Harvey Karp. He's a fellow at the American Academy of Pediatrics and the author of "The Happiest Baby on the Block." He joined us from KCRW in Santa Monica.
Dr. Karp, thank you so much.
Dr. KARP: Hey, Guy, thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
California is in the midst of its worst outbreak of whooping cough in a half-century. More than 2,700 cases have been reported so far this year -- eight times last year's number at this point. Seven of the victims, all infants, have died. And here's what really worries pediatricians like USC's Harvey Karp: Doctors thought they wiped out whooping cough when they developed vaccines decades ago.
California is in the midst of its worst outbreak of whooping cough in a half-century. More than 2,700 cases have been reported so far this year -- eight times last year's number at this point. Seven of the victims, all infants, have died.
And here's what really worries pediatricians like USC's Harvey Karp: Doctors thought they wiped out whooping cough when they developed vaccines decades ago.
The disease hits young children hardest, especially ones who are not vaccinated or who have not yet built up full immunity. The prescribed vaccination regimen begins with a shot at two months and continues until children are 5 years old. For many children, it can take that long for complete immunity to develop -- and until then, they're vulnerable.
The California epidemic has raised plenty of questions about the role of vaccination and the increasing numbers of parents who decide not to vaccinate their children. California's Department of Public Health cites three schools in the state where 80 percent of parents have signed a "personal belief exemption" to keep their children from being vaccinated.
That's part of what's behind this epidemic, Dr. Karp tells NPR's Guy Raz. "And it's in part because the immunity of people who were immunized earlier has waned," he adds.
In fact, Karp estimates that 75 percent to 90 percent of whooping cough cases occur in teenagers and adults, for whom it is not deadly. Most adults may experience only a lingering cough. The danger occurs when adults and teenagers -- whose immunity wanes around 12 years old -- contract whooping cough and unwittingly give it to infants.
There is a booster shot for adults, but it only became available in 2005. Many adults are not even aware that they should get one every 10 years.
"Doctors -- especially pediatricians -- aren't doing a good enough job," Karp says. "When you go into the doctor's office for your child's care, your pediatrician should be telling you that you should be getting immunized as well."
Karp acknowledges that vaccination is a difficult issue for parents.
"They're very busy, working hard, working double jobs -- it's really a burden to have to be a parent and then also have to be a biochemist, to read the literature and decide what vaccines are good and what vaccines aren't good," he says.
In the background, he says, parents see a frightening increase of autism, coupled with reports of a potential link to vaccinations.
"All of that has stopped parents in their tracks from wanting to take any chance that they were going to expose their child to something that might be dangerous," Karp says. "I totally understand that. The good news is -- we have a large body of information now to show zero association between vaccines and autism."
"But," he adds, "we do need to try to help parents figure all of this information out so that they can make the best decision for their kids."