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Whooping Cough Takes Over L.A., Ignites Debate

Whooping Cough epidemic sweeps LA, sparks debate among anti-vaxxers
Photograph by Getty Images/Fuse

Los Angeles is in the middle of an epidemic, and no one knows that better than the specialists at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. At the center of it all is an alarming rise in pertussis — otherwise known as "whooping cough" — that doesn't seem to be letting up anytime soon.

If whooping cough sounds like something you'd only read about in a Depression-era novel, that's because for a while, it kind of was. Thanks to vaccinations, the illness was almost entirely eliminated decades ago, and after 1995, only six Americans died from the deadly cough.

But so far this year, CHLA has treated 72 of the reported 1,317 whooping cough cases in L.A. County. (In the entire state, nearly 8,000 cases have been reported since January 1.) Sadly, 94 percent of those affected are children, and three infants under 2 months have already lost their lives as a result of their symptoms. In fact, the illness has sent many of its young victims straight to the ICU, and had them coughing so violently that their tiny bodies were thrown into painful convulsions.

"They cough so hard, it turns into vomiting and broken ribs; they end up intubated, to ventilate their lungs," infectious disease specialist Dr. Jeffrey Bender told The Hollywood Reporter.

While the medical community rallies around the ill, it's also shining a light on what they say the real problem at hand is: the skyrocketing rates of parents who simply "opt out" of vaccinating their kids.

"It’s a smoldering fire that has started and it could be a complete wildfire if vaccination rates continue to fall," says Dr. Deborah Lehman, the associate director of pediatric infectious diseases at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

In fact, reports show that vaccine opt-out rates have nearly doubled in the last seven years in California alone. And this hasn't just affected the pertussis outbreak; the state has also suffered through a measles outbreak. It was after looking into the measles epidemic earlier this year that they discovered half of those cases involved unvaccinated patients.

But while you might assume that these unvaccinated kids might come from somewhat less privileged backgrounds, you'd be wrong. THR took a closer look at immunization records submitted by each school; and what they found was more than eye-opening. Here's just a slice of what they turned up:

"An examination by The Hollywood Reporter of immunization records submitted to the state by educational facilities suggests that wealthy Westside kids — particularly those attending exclusive, entertainment-industry-favored child care centers, preschools and kindergartens — are far more likely to get sick (and potentially infect their siblings and playmates) than other kids in L.A. The reason is at once painfully simple and utterly complex: More parents in this demographic are choosing not to vaccinate their children as medical experts advise. They express their noncompliance by submitting a form known as a personal belief exemption (PBE) instead of paperwork documenting a completed shot schedule."

Many of these unvaccinated kids hail from the glittering enclaves of Beverly Hills and Malibu, Brentwood and West Hollywood (otherwise known as L.A.'s Westside). To give you some context, schools like Kabbalah Children’s Academy in Beverly Hills was found to have a 57 percent immunization rate, while the Waldorf Early Childhood Center in Santa Monica is at 68 percent. And if those numbers don't particularly shock you, they should. Here's why: Since vaccines aren't 100 percent effective, we rely on what's known as "herd immunity," or the immunity of a critical number of people in our immediate community. So long as 90 percent or so of the surrounding community is immunized, the vaccinated and unvaccinated community should remain protected. But numbers like 57 and 68 percent? According to World Health Organization, those stats are just about on par with the rates of developing countries like Chad and South Sudan.

While the main debate for not vaccinating used to be over autism concerns, medical experts say that in recent years (as weak links to autism have been disproved), many parents now blame vaccines for "a constellation of unproven anxieties, from allergies and asthma to eczema and seizures."

"If I talk to most of my patients, who are very savvy by the way, they will say they know someone directly or indirectly who felt that their child has not been the same since the vaccine,” Dr. Lauren Feder told THR.

Even actress Amanda Peet chatted with THR about how heated the vaccine debate has become among parents

"Their position is, 'Hey, why are you so gung-ho on tanking your kids with all those vaccines?'" says Peet, who is mom to two kids and one on the way. (Peet is an outspoken advocate for full immunizations and active with the U.N.'s Shot@Life vaccine campaign.) "They act almost concerned for me, and I want to say, 'Wait a minute, your children are actually benefiting from the barrier I’m putting in place for them, and now you’re questioning my soundness of mind for doing that?'"

You can read more from The Hollywood Reporter's fascinating investigation — and check out its eye-opening vaccination map, which shows L.A. neighborhoods that are most at-risk for an outbreak — right here.

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