Toronto public health gears up to get more children vaccinated against whooping cough

Last year, only 28% of children aged up to five were offered a vaccine against pertussis, a form of whooping cough

Toronto Public Health is planning to embark on a campaign to encourage its youngest children – those aged five to 11 – to get the pertussis vaccination.

Last year, only 28% of children aged up to five were offered a vaccine against pertussis, a form of whooping cough. Public health officials are hoping to change that.

“The goal is that [the vaccine] is available to every student,” said Christine Klein, senior director of immunization planning for TPH. “But with the very severe outbreak we’ve had in Ontario, we know that we need to increase our efforts and outreach and education to all people.”

Even though the disease is linked to vaccination rates – pertussis can be particularly lethal if left untreated – public health officials recently decided against offering vaccines at school-based booster clinics.

As a result, the vaccine is given at community clinics as part of the Canadian Pertussis Immunization Program.

But officials have learned that the program is only effective if enough children are vaccinated.

“The problem is there are a lot of kids whose parents don’t believe in vaccination and they’re not likely to come get the vaccination,” said Klein.

Between September and December of last year, there were 7,614 cases of whooping cough in Ontario, nearly three times as many as there were during the same time the year before. Last year, whooping cough spread rapidly. By December, it reached 795 cases. By January, it was up to 4,400.

In response, Toronto Public Health has secured funding from the federal government to buy 200,000 doses of the pertussis vaccine.

Ontario health minister Eric Hoskins signed an order last week, announcing TPH’s application for health funding to purchase 80,000 doses of the vaccine in the latest round of the Canada’s Pertussis (pertussis) Immunization Program. “The priority for children up to the age of five is pertussis, so this funding will help us put a dent in the outbreak,” Hoskins said.

At the risk of sounding over-explanatory, a new study published in the Public Library of Science Science journal has found there is some dispute over whether the pertussis vaccine actually helps in controlling the spread of the illness.

The study, conducted by two scientists from the University of Windsor, examined data from two studies that compared what happened when people were vaccinated with pertussis and unvaccinated, and found they could no longer confirm whether or not the anti-bodies activated.

Lead author Warren Wolinski said he isn’t trying to undermine the overall effectiveness of the vaccines. “We are simply saying that the recent epidemics in Ontario, the case fatality rate in Ontario from pertussis, the so-called whooping cough epidemic that struck large parts of Ontario and is continuing has been extremely large and what that has done is that it has succeeded in speeding the transition from it being completely preventable to it being almost entirely preventable by allowing us to account for all death cases,” he said.

“So at some point, you want to be able to discount a lot of these deaths,” Wolinski said. “And there are very large cases of severe pertussis that we know are being accounted for now and we have no way of understanding them until we have many more vaccines in people, and that the children that are vaccinated, are protected from the severe syndromes.”

Pertussis symptoms are often very similar to other illnesses, Wolinski said, meaning people can actually experience whooping cough without being aware they are doing so. Symptoms include coughing bouts and a whooping sound. If untreated, whooping cough can lead to pneumonia, fainting and in some cases, death.

The vaccine in question is given every two years but researchers have shown it lasts more than seven years.

Wolinski said the study, published on Tuesday, is just the first step in looking at ways to better understand pertussis, especially in light of that number of new cases.

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