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Vaccines called crucial as whooping cough makes comeback in Texas

Whooping cough, a common childhood killer in the early 1900s, is making a 21st-century comeback in Texas, say experts at a statewide immunization summit wrapping up today in Fort Worth.

Last year, 3,358 Texans contracted whooping cough, also known as pertussis, and three of them died. It was the most reported cases in half a century. This year, Texas has reported 1,783 cases.

The return of whooping cough is a reminder to public health officials that vaccination programs are still critical, even though many diseases such as smallpox and polio are not the threats they once were.

"Immunizations in Texas have improved since the last conference," said Anna Dragsbaek, president and CEO of The Immunization Partnership, a summit sponsor. "Texas used to be one of the states with the lowest immunization rates, but now it's one of the top 12."

State health services and public and private collaborations have helped improve the rates, she said, but public education is still crucial.

Many parents, unfamiliar with the potential ravages of childhood diseases such as measles, rubella and mumps, sometimes resist immunizations for their children out of fear of the process itself.

"Unfortunately it is an urban myth that just won't die," Dragsbaek said of the suspicions about immunization safety.

A worldwide fight

On a global level, effective immunization programs are an economic engine as well as a humanitarian effort, according to Alex Palacios of the GAVI Alliance, a public-private partnership aimed at increasing immunization rates in poor countries.

"If economic growth is going to happen in these countries, you're going to have to have healthy kids who can go to school," Palacios said.

Much progress has been achieved worldwide against preventable diseases, Palacios said.

"In a 30-year period, we've managed to reach an increasing percentage of children which has dramatically improved public health," Palacios said. Of the 130 million children born worldwide every year, 106 million are being immunized.

In the 1980s, about 14 million children died every year from preventable diseases like measles, tetanus and polio, Palacios said. That figure has been reduced to about 8 million, he said.

Forty percent of those deaths are caused by pneumonia and rotavirus, a diarrheal disease. New vaccines are now available for both.

"There is now the prospect that we can bring down childhood deaths to about 5 million by 2020," Palacios said. "That would really represent a major global health victory."

Immunization levels worldwide for many diseases have reached 80 percent or more.

Still, he said, as many as 24 million children live in areas inaccessible to health workers.

"These are countries where the logistics and lack of infrastructure are critical," Palacios said "In some countries it's also political as well as geographic. Sometimes it's ethnic."

It is important for public-health officials to keep informing the public of the devastating effects of diseases like pertussis, measles, smallpox and polio.

"Vaccines are often a victim of their own success," Dragsbaek said.

Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657

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