So I've recently been seeing a number of ads on Yahoo.com from Sanofi Pasteur, encouraging new parents to get re-vaccinated for Whooping Cough (pertussis), basically implying you could pick it up and kill your baby. Here's one of the ads...
And even better for trying to scare you that your baby will die is this one...
Now, they could not say these things if they were not true. But the thing the medical industry loves to do is scare the crap out of you by twisting statistics to make it sound like if you don't do what the drug company or public health campaign says, you or your child will definitely die. What they fail to do is put this into perspective.
According to the CDC, the number of Whooping Cough cases in the United States in 2003 were 4 per 100,000 people. Now this is not the number who died, but just the number of reported cases. So, 4 per 100,000 people means that the overall odds of catching it were 1 in 25,000.
But remember that they're bringing the mention of death into the ads. Namely that "nearly all deaths in the United States from whooping cough are reported in infants less than 6 months" and that pertussis "can be fatal to babies." They're trying to get you so scared that your baby will die if you don't get vaccinated. But how likely is that to really happen?
They were citing this CDC report. The report also states that 5,872 cases of pertussis in babies under 6 months were reported in the 3-year study period. Of that 5,872 babies... 51 died... not 51 a year, but 51 in three years. That's an average of about 17 babies per year out of the approximately 3.7 million babies born in each of those years. So the average odds of a baby dying from whooping cough during the three year period was about 1 in 200,000.
So the same report they scare you with, gives other numbers that let you calculate that the odds of your baby getting and dying from pertussis... from anyone... would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 in 200,000.
So why are they raising such an alarm?
Perhaps a CDC price list, showing pricing for the Tdap (Tetanus Toxoid, Reduced Diphtheria Toxoid and Acellular Pertussis, a.k.a. ADACELÂ®) vaccine runs between $30.75 for the CDC's bulk discount rate and $37.43 for the average private sector rate. Basically, every person they scare into getting it now is an additional $30 (or more) in sales for them. If they could convince 3.3 million adults to get so scared they ran out and got vaccinated, it would mean $100 million in sales.
What's interesting is that most adults will get the shot anyway over the next few years (and many have already). The CDC recommended switching to a Tdap booster (from a simple Td booster) in 2005. So if you go in for your regular check-ups, your periodic tetanus booster will include pertussis vaccine if your doctor is following CDC recommendations. Seems like Sanofi Pasteur is trying to boost annual revenues by scaring people into getting a booster now instead of when they're scheduled for it.
Last, to show you how much of a scare campaign this is, let's run the numbers of pertussis deaths against the super bogeyman that new parents get attacked with... SIDS. The average baby is over 130 times more likely to die of SIDS than pertussis (based on 2,648 reported SIDS deaths in 1999 vs. an estimated 20 pertussis deaths for infants under one year in 2003). Basically, the average baby is more likely to die of SIDS than to even catch pertussis, and that's before the CDC officially recommended the Tdap booster for adults.
It's amazing how much their ads look like scare tactics when you see the numbers on pertussis in context. Should you make sure that your doctor gives you a Tdap booster instead of a Td booster the next time you're due? It's basically just a booster of a vaccine you've already had, so it probably couldn't hurt and could help, and it's only a few dollars more than the Td booster. Should you run screaming to your doctor, demanding a pertussis vaccine right away like Sanofi Pasteur would have you believe? That's up to you to decide. But every time the news or a drug company ad hits you with alarming statistics, go get some context on those statistics. Once you see them in context, they're usually a LOT less alarming.