Rise in whooping cough cases, reports of measles stir vaccination debate

Posted at 11:09 PM, Dec 11, 2014
and last updated 2014-12-11 23:09:50-05

MICHIGAN -- With reports of hundreds of people infected with whooping cough, or pertussis, in one northern Michigan county, there have also been several dozen cases showing up in West Michigan.

Nearly 30 cases of pertussis have been reported in Allegan County since August, and just this week one new case confirmed in Kent County involving a middle schooler in Rockford.

Whooping cough is a serious contagious disease affecting the upper respiratory system, according to the Kent County Health Department.

"You start to have fits of coughing followed by potential vomiting or extreme exhaustion," said Brian Hartl, with the Kent County Health Department "After coughing and struggling to breath, then you get that sort of respiratory whooping sound."

The Michigan Department of Community Health says the best prevention against pertussis is vaccination.

On top of reports of whooping cough, there have also been five reported cases of measles just this week in the Traverse City area, igniting debate once again over whether too many parents are choosing to opt out of vaccinating their kids.

“Any time you have something that’s preventable you’d like to see people take actions  to truly prevent it," Hartl said.

“Vaccination  rates in the state of Michigan aren’t as high as we’d like to see and obviously vaccination is the most common way and effective way to prevent these types of high contagious infections.”

Michigan has one of the highest vaccine waiver rates in the country at about three times the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Data from the Michigan Department of Community Health shows counties in the Traverse City area, where whooping cough and measles cases have become prevalent in recent weeks, have a 10 percent or higher rate of vaccine waivers. Nearly all counties in West Michigan are at five percent or lower, in line with the state average.

In Rockford, FOX 17 confirmed the East Rockford Middle School principal sent an advisory letter to parents this week after learning a student had come down with whooping cough. School officials said they were working with Kent County health officials to ensure the school was clean while working to monitor if any other students were starting to experience symptoms. According to the advisory from the school's principal, the student in question hadn't been in school since before Thanksgiving and therefore didn't pose any significant risk of spreading the disease.

On the flipside of the vaccination debate, Suzanne Waltman who founded the group Michigan Opposing Mandatory Vaccines or MOM, said she's been advocating for two decades to ensure parents continue to have a choice of whether or not to immunize their children.

“We shouldn’t be forced to take a drug against our will and vaccination is a drug," Waltman told FOX 17 by phone Thursday.

Waltman said it's extremely unfair placing the blame for outbreaks, like the one being seen in northern Michigan, on parents of children who haven't been immunized.

“They point the finger at us but we are making as an informed decision as they are," she said.

“I really think all rights of all individuals have to be respected when it comes to healthcare, you just don’t have a right to force someone to take a drug against their will, what else can we force an individual to do then.”

Under new rules that will take effect Jan. 1, the Michigan Department of Community Health is working to implement a new policy that would make it more difficult for parents to opt out of having their child vaccinated by requiring them to have the waivers certified by their local health departments.