If you had asked me a month ago why I should get a pertussis booster, I would not have known. I am a mostly healthy 30-something, I work out, I get annual physicals and I have no fear of going to the doctor. At no point did I ever hear that I should get a pertussis booster shot or why it was important.
This is the story of the effort we made at Dragon*Con to help contain the pertussis epidemic. But I don’t want to bury the lead with my narrative so I’ll cut to the most important point: If you have not gotten a pertussis booster in the past five years, you almost certainly need to get one. There is no excuse. Get your pertussis shot. Go, now. It’s important.
And I promise, the needle will be much smaller than this.
If you want to know the details as to why, and what we are trying to do to solve the problem, read more after the fold:
You should first know that pertussis is nasty. If you get it as an adult, it’s not typically life-threatening but it ain’t no fun either.
It’s sometimes called “whooping cough” or the “100-day cough” because it makes you cough so hard and for so long that you make a whooping sound trying to breathe. It can cause you to cough so hard that you turn blue from lack of oxygen or burst blood vessels in your face and eyes. So, for purely selfish reasons, it makes sense to protect yourself.
But it gets worse. The real danger of pertussis is to babies. Infants are not completely protected against pertussis until they have had at least three doses of the vaccine. The schedule for pertussis vaccination is typically at 2, 4 and 6 months so until 6 months, babies are still susceptible to pertussis and the primary way they can be exposed is from adults who may not even realize they have pertussis.
Another thing that’s strange about Pertussis: it comes and goes in waves. Unlike other diseases, it’s always exhibited spikes and valleys in infection rates. When the vaccination for pertussis was developed, it made a significant difference in the overall number of cases, but even with the vaccine, spikes of infection continued, just at a lower overall rate.
In 2010, there have been pertussis outbreaks in several states. California was hit the worst, with 4,017 cases reported as of September 17 and 9 deaths, all infants younger than 6 months. The highest infection rate is among infants but there are also many cases among adolescents and young adults.
It’s easy, as skeptics, to rail against the anti-vaxxers as a reason for this increase in preventable illness. There may be some relation between the movement to not vaccinate and the pertussis outbreak but it isn’t the biggest problem. In California, pertussis rates are about the same in counties with high childhood vaccination rates and low ones. And the latest C.D.C. Vaccination survey reports that immunization rates for children remain high. The bigger problem is that the number of adults who are immunized against pertussis via the booster shot is very low; nationwide, it’s about 6%. Most adults don’t even realize they need the booster shot.
About three weeks before Dragon*Con, in a regular conference chat with the Skepchicks, someone threw out the idea to host a pertussis clinic at Dragon*Con. I thought this was a crazy, impossible idea, but then I remembered that when I was in Las Vegas this year for TAM, I had met Dr. William Atkinson. Bill is a Medical Epidemiologist in the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. He has worked for CDC for 23 years, with most of this time spent in immunization-related activities. His current principle responsibility is the development of technical and training materials for immunization providers; he teaches doctors and nurses how and when to give vaccines.
I contacted Bill without a whole lot of optimism. We had so little time. But what happened next was a series of coordination the likes of which we have never seen at Skepchick HQ.
Bill jumped at the idea. He recognized that Dragon*Con gave them the opportunity to access their target demographic: males, aged 20-39. He had all the right contacts and put us in touch with the local State health board, who said they could provide us with nurses and vaccines during Dragon*Con, all free of charge. We were too late to get on the Dragon*Con premises so we rented out a space in an adjacent mall. We put out a call on Skepchick to help fund the rental, plus signage and advertising, and met our goal in less than two days.
We then had a huge empty clothing store in a mall that we needed to turn into a clinic and to get people’s attention. Skepchick art crew, Jill and Amy, immediately got to work making clever, cool, sci-fi- and fantasy-based posters that we used to promote. Local Atlanta Skeptics stepped up to volunteer and help the nurses at the clinic itself. Elyse and the Women Thinking Free Foundation went into overdrive, getting tattoos, stickers, posters and banners made. Somehow, miraculously, it all came together and we had an incredible turnout.
We vaccinated 203 people at Dragon*Con. The breakout:
- 118 (58%) male, 85 female
- 85 (41%) GA residents, 117 out-of-state, 1 international (UK) – was that you, Tracy? :)
- 11-19 years: 4
- 20-39 years: 135 (66%)
- 40-59: 61
- 60-64: 3
We hit our primary target (males 20-39) pretty much on the nose. We also handed out hundreds of flyers, postcards and brochures, educated people with the posters and hopefully had a ripple effect of educating a large proportion of people about how important this vaccination is.
Also? We had a blast. And hopefully now I’ve educated you on how important this vaccine is. So, if you haven’t already, please go get vaccinated today!
A few follow ups:
Bill came to speak to the Atlanta Skeptics in the Pub last weekend and here’s a recording of his talk and the Q&A after. Also check out the video that Ashley (Healthy Addict) did covering the clinic:
As well as the Dr. Rachie Reports segment that she did for the Skeptic Zone podcast
And you can check out all the photos I collected of the clinic on my Flickr stream.