ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The number of children in New Mexico who were exempt from required vaccinations has tripled, as the number of cases of whooping cough reported in the state spiked in recent years, state health officials said.
A recent state report shows the number of exemptions increased three-fold since 1999 to nearly 3,400. Meanwhile, the state's pertussis cases jumped from 85 in 2009 to 274 in 2011, according to state Department of Health data.
Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a highly contagious bacterial illness that attacks the respiratory system. New Mexico law allows parents to exempt their children from required vaccinations by claiming a religious or personal belief that forbids vaccinations. The rate of such exemptions was 5.8 per 1,000 children in 2011, up from 2 per 1,000 in 1999.
About 112 pertussis cases were reported this year through May 5, according to the Albuquerque Journal (http://bit.ly/JdzAVx ).
State health officials remain uncertain what role vaccine exemptions play in outbreak of preventable diseases such as pertussis, said David Selvage, a state Department of Health epidemiologist.
"When you look at cases of pertussis, if you are in an area where there are an increased numbers of vaccine exemptions, there's an increased chance that you're going to be in a pertussis cluster," Selvage said.
Complicating the problem is the vaccine itself, which may not offer full protection. The protection also wanes after several years, requiring adults to get a periodic booster.
The vaccine "is the best protection we have against pertussis, but it's probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 80-to-85 percent effective," Selvage said.
A 2-month-old baby in San Miguel County died this month, making it the first pertussis-related death of a New Mexico infant since 2005. Infants 6 months and younger are most vulnerable to whooping cough because they have not received multiple doses of the vaccine, said Dr. Joan Baumbach, the state's medical epidemiologist.
Health officials were uncertain how the infant was exposed to pertussis. The baby had received the first in a four-dose series of childhood pertussis vaccinations, the agency said.
Pregnant women and anyone who expects to be in contact with an infant should get a booster shot, Baumbach said.