Written by Leslie Hook, CNN Toronto
’60s pop icon Harry Chapin is commonly remembered for his song, “Cat’s in the Cradle.” But for Toronto Public Health, the song was named Canada’s “Song of the Century” in 2011.
In the past decade, Toronto has witnessed a spike in cases of pertussis, also known as whooping cough. According to Dr. Rob Warmoth, Chief Medical Officer of Health for Toronto Public Health, cases of the potentially fatal infection soared from around 800 cases a year in the 1990s to 7,000 in 2015, before slowly dropping off in the past two years.
With Toronto preparing for its annual infectious disease conference this week, a panel of experts took an in-depth look at whooping cough and its spread.
“During the global influenza pandemic in 1918, whooping cough jumped in massive numbers,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which hosted the event. “It’s kind of like a camel going through the eye of a needle.”
“The contagion in a lot of places during the course of that pandemic was so dramatic — such that the belief was this could spread like a cancer. These were a lot of people in a small area — more than 800,000 cases in just a couple of months. So there was fear about the spread of this illness.”
This year, according to Dr. Katrina Karkazis, division chief for the Toronto Public Health Victoria and Wellington Respiratory Doctors, the “virus still persists and moves around.”
Up to 90% of children will contract the illness before the age of 5, she said.
Popular jokes and celebrities
Considered a rite of passage for American kids, the childhood vaccination crisis began in 2008 when a celebrity, writer Jenny McCarthy, “promoted the idea that vaccines are harmful,” Warmoth said.
In Toronto, the 2017 Whooping Cough Death Registry has tallied 10 deaths, including two 10-year-olds and six 11-year-olds.
Popular rumors circulated that one of the deaths was caused by a vaccine made from cow’s milk. But Warmoth said the World Health Organization had confirmed that the young boy who died was infected with whooping cough.
“The reality is the vast majority of outbreaks in children that I’ve seen are linked to parents not immunizing their children.”
Dr. Christopher Mayer, of Ottawa Public Health, said it’s important to stress that while people tend to think of measles as a childhood illness, the vaccine for measles and rubella only works for those between the ages of 2 and 15, and those who have been vaccinated “should be extra vigilant,” he said.
Mayer cited “the recent massive vaccination collapse in Europe” when an overall decline in European immunization rates coincided with the “disruption of a massive measles outbreak.”
He cautioned, however, that it’s common to get hype about vaccines during emergency disease conferences.
“There’s a lot of emotion in the room and a lot of fear. This is probably the last best opportunity to talk about this with people who have power. It’s probably the last time for the general public to be vocal in talking about the measles, mumps and rubella vaccines.”
No panic over vaccine
Warmoth believes that while there’s concern that the decline in Canadian immunization rates will continue, recent vaccine-preventable outbreaks are probably more unusual than most people think.
He emphasized that it’s important for doctors to emphasize that there is no reason to panic.
“In large, centralized public health systems like ours, where we have a number of medical professionals, we have vaccination staff that goes after the problems associated with outbreaks, and we work quite closely with provincial health care institutions,” he said.
“And in doing so, we often find ways of not overhype illnesses, because you don’t want people thinking all of a sudden, this disease that has been present for decades will suddenly appear this year and take the lives of 20,000 Canadians.”