Whooping cough vaccine: Toronto hospitals prepare to vaccinate

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Dr. Arlene King said it was an extremely anxious situation

The top doctor in charge of Toronto’s huge public hospital system says she expects to get the go-ahead within a few weeks to start vaccinating young children against the potentially deadly illness pertussis, also known as whooping cough.

Dr. Arlene King told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Question Period programme that she expects a decision “very soon” after a National Advisory Committee on Immunization review of Dr. Thomas Rascoglia’s preliminary recommendations for a vaccine that many scientists believe will contain a live-attenuated form of the whooping cough virus.

In February, Dr. Rascoglia, an infectious disease specialist at the Greater Toronto Health Region, suggested that no longer using or vaccinating pertussis vaccine for six to 12 months could be a safer choice.

Dr. King said Dr. Rascoglia was “elected onto his council” last year and the recommendation came at a very difficult time for the rest of Canada.

“He spoke the truth,” she said. “It was difficult for us at the time because everyone was not used to talking about pertussis.”

The health region put its own request for the immunization shots on hold as the Canadian flu shot vaccination schedule was recalibrated this year following problems with its version. Dr. King told the CTV program that vaccinating children against pertussis will create a “ripple effect” that will see a greater uptake in adult vaccinations and because the illnesses in infants are so devastating.

“It could be over 100 lives saved,” she said.

Her opinion does not represent that of the provincial government, which endorsed Dr. Rascoglia’s recommendation to vaccinate babies under the age of one.

“There is consensus, generally, that babies in their first year of life need to be vaccinated with pertussis,” Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins told the Globe and Mail newspaper.

Dr. King, however, said she is confident that Dr. Rascoglia’s preliminary findings for the whooping cough vaccine include a safer version of the virus and that the preliminary results were “quite robust” and far more complete than the provincial report.

Dr. King said a delay of at least six months would mean no further pregnant women on whooping cough vaccines.

The fetus would be excluded from the vaccine and infants would have to be vaccinated after about six weeks rather than six months as currently recommended.

Vaccinating children for whooping cough can be administered in the first 15 to 18 months of life.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, whooping cough killed 3,165 Canadians between 1991 and 2010. Between 2010 and 2015 there were 2,445 cases of whooping cough reported in Canada – a number that’s lower than the average in the 1980s, but still a little more than 70,000 cases a year in the United States.

Pertussis is a viral respiratory disease that occurs in humans and animals. It’s characterized by severe coughing spells in which someone stops breathing while convulsing. Infants less than six months old are the primary target of whooping cough epidemics.

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