Concerns Raised Over Whooping Cough Vaccine's Potency

2 Newborns In San Diego Have Died From Whooping Cough

A 10News joint investigation with KPBS and the Watchdog Institute is raising serious concerns about whether the whooping cough or pertussis vaccine is actually doing its job.

For young Matthew Bryce, the first two months of his life have not been easy.

"It was just giving him a hard time breathing," said Marlon Bryce, Matthew's father.

At two weeks, Matthew started showing signs of a cold. He didn't have a violent cough typically associated with whooping cough, but Matthew's parents soon learned that was the diagnosis.

"The minute I heard it, I just started thinking the worst," said Bryce.

In the worst whooping cough outbreak in California in six decades, 10 newborns have died this year, including two in San Diego County.

The Bryce family was fearful and puzzled.

"I don't know where he got it from because everyone's been vaccinated that's been around him," said Cindy Bryce, Matthew's mother.

According to the numbers, the answer could lie in the vaccines and how effective they truly are. In the first 11 months of the year, nearly 1,000 adults and children have tested positive for whooping cough. More than half of them had been vaccinated.

An extensive data analysis of nine other California counties by the Watchdog Institute revealed a similar trend. Between 44 and 83 percent of those diagnosed had been immunized. To find out why, KPBS traveled to Amsterdam where a group of government scientists had discovered the pertussis bacteria had mutated almost two decades ago.

"So this new mutation had the effect that the bacteria started to produce more pertussis toxin," said Dr. Frits Mooi.

The problem, said Mooi is that the new generation of vaccines, which came out around the same time, was not tested on the mutation. He believes the new strain can overpower the vaccine.

"I believe there's a direct link between the strain and pertussis notifications," said Mooi.

Other leading experts, such as Dr. James Cherry of UCLA, are not buying it.

"Even though these changes have occurred, there is no evidence that's led to increased vaccine failure," said Cherry.

Cherry and state health officials said because the vaccines aren't 100 percent effective -- the vaccine is only effective 85 percent of the time according to the drug companies -- it's not surprising a large amount of people who contract pertussis have been vaccinated.

As for the cause of the recent outbreak, Cherry said more people are getting tested.

"The main reason is increased awareness. People, particularly public health people are much more aware and that trickles down," he said.

Among those who were looking out for it were Matthew's doctors. The quick test and diagnosis may have saved his life, although the source of his whooping cough remains a mystery.

Mooi said it was simply a matter of money and that it was cheaper to not test the vaccine against the mutation. Vaccine makers say that testing wasn't necessary.

You can find out more on how money and connections have helped determine what pertussis vaccines are developed in a special documentary airing on KPBS at 9:30 p.m. Thursday.