Pharmacists play role in Wash. pertussis epidemic


Recently, a disease that was long a deadly scourge in the United States has resurfaced: whooping cough.

In April, public health authorities in Washington state declared an epidemic of the childhood disease, also known as pertussis, following a nearly tenfold increase in the number of cases. In May, the state Department of Health found 1,248 cases of the illness, compared with almost 130 at the same time last year. The staggering rise, producing numbers not seen since the 1940s, prompted Gov. Chris Gregoire to announce that emergency funding would be made available to the health department to try and curb the epidemic. The disease is particularly dangerous for infants, and about half of those younger than 1 year old require hospitalization. In light of the situation in Washington, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved the use of federal money designated for other immunizations to buy more than 27,000 doses of pertussis vaccine for adults who are uninsured or underinsured.

There are many reasons for the epidemic, Washington state Department of Health communications director Tim Church told Drug Store News, but in many cases, kids are getting it from adults, who may not be aware that while childhood vaccinations against pertussis may protect against the disease for a while, they can also wear off over time. “That’s why we’re so intent on getting the word out that adults need to get vaccinated,” Church said. “There are far too few adults vaccinated against pertussis.”

Another reason is that the disease is cyclical, Church said; some years have few cases, and some have many. But in this instance, there are even more cases in Washington than there normally would be in a bad year.

Currently, Washington’s state health department offers vaccinations for children for free, and the CDC recommends that children get the Tdap vaccine at age 11. But adults, Church said, are largely on their own. Because Washington has one of the highest rates of parents opting out of getting their kids vaccinated before starting kindergarten, it was suggested in some media reports that it could be one of the reasons for the epidemic, though that remains uncertain.

With the state having limited resources to fight the epidemic, pharmacy retailers have an opportunity to step in where the state doesn’t. In the wake of the state’s declaration of an epidemic, Rite Aid and Walgreens announced the shipment of extra doses of the Tdap vaccine to their stores. Church said he had never seen retail pharmacies so actively promoting Tdap vaccines for adults. “We’ve been pleased with what’s been happening with pharmacies in Washington state,” Church said. “They’re promoting the whooping cough vaccine like never before.”

Pharmacy retailers, Church said, were in a good position to promote the vaccine. “Pharmacists are among the most trusted health providers out there, so we sure would love to see pharmacists ask people coming through if they’re aware there’s a whooping cough outbreak,” Church said. “If people hear those things from pharmacists, it’ll help get more people vaccinated. Retail pharmacies have a lot of resources we don’t have.”

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