Hezekiah Thomas was 34 months old when the cough started.
It was a hacking so fierce his mother, Carli Kassing of Northeast Tacoma, took him to the emergency room in the middle of the night on March 3.
“They said he just had a cold,” Kassing recalled.
Four or five days later, his doctor said it was just a virus and to wait it out.
Two and a half weeks after that, Hezekiah was coughing so hard his face turned red and he threw up. He tested positive for pertussis, and the doctor put him on antibiotics.
The toddler had been contagious, and going to day care, all three weeks.
Hezekiah’s lingering cough is the soundtrack for the state’s epidemic of whooping cough. So far, 640 cases have been confirmed this year, compared with 94 by the same time last year.
In Pierce County, Hezekiah is one of 90 victims, mostly children, so far, compared with 128 all of last year.
In reality, the number of cases is likely closer to 900 in Pierce County. Nine out of 10 aren’t reported because victims don’t go to the doctor or, like Hezekiah, aren’t diagnosed when they do.
That should alarm every parent of a newborn. It should send everyone unsure if their vaccination is current to check, and, if necessary, to get a booster shot and join the herd of protectors.
Kassing was relying on herd immunity to protect her boy.
Her daughter suffered fevers and listlessness when she had her baby shots, and Kassing decided to delay Hezekiah’s shots a few years.
It was a mistake, she said. Her boy will be sick for up to three months.
Everyone in his day care had to be alerted and given preventive measures, including antibiotics.
Kassing will never know whose cough infected Hezekiah. She suspects it was someone who didn’t think they had pertussis because they’d had the vaccine and didn’t know it wears out.
Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department is trying to get adults back into the herd.
“We’re not just vaccinating kids, we’re vaccinating the people around kids,” said Dr. Anthony Chen, director of health. “Immunity will lapse over time. The more people we can get vaccinated, the more protection there will be, not only for kids but for adults.”
Bridget Vandeventer, the department’s communications manager, is protecting her baby, due in June. Newborns must wait four to six weeks for immunizations, which are effective two weeks later. Any adult who visits Vandeventer must be up-to-date on vaccines.
The Health Department and the state are working to build a similar cocoon around school children.
The state’s vaccine registry shows students’ history – helpful when pertussis spikes at a school, as happened at Washington-Hoyt Elementary last year. The district and the department can intervene with prevention and immunizations.
The department has learned that the much-discussed 5 percent of kids whose parents opt them out of immunizations aren’t what they seem.
“We want to make sure it’s a matter of conviction, not convenience,” said Nigel Turner, communicable disease control division manager.
Scattered among the opt-outs are harried parents who sign the forms just to get their kids enrolled in school without the hassle of a medical appointment. They welcome immunization offers.
The Health Department respects the wishes of those who opt out deliberately, Turner said.
Many have grown up with no experience of the diseases, but have read about vaccine side effects, real or false. They’ve decided that risk is reason enough to leave their children defenseless against polio, diptheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella and whooping cough.
It’s different with immigrants, Turner said.
“In countries where they are still seeing measles and polio, people line up for miles to get vaccinated,” he said.
“Often the immigrant community will have the highest rates of immunization,” Chen added. “They’ve seen what these diseases can do.”
So has Carli Kassing. She’ll get Hezekiah the rest of his shots as soon as his body has recovered from the damage whooping cough has done to it.
Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677 kathleen.merryman @thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/street