What’s Next? Diphtheria?

Two nearby whooping cough outbreaks have me wondering if we're all going to die of Oregon Trail diseases.

As we all know from Roland Emmerich’s documentary 2012, this will be a year of disaster. It could be the end of the world unless John Cusack saves us all. So far we’ve seen several omens of the end times:  Rick Santorum winning the Republican primary in four states, the Giants winning the Super Bowl and, of course, the reveal of Gossip Girl as Georgina Sparks.

And now there’s whooping cough in Cherry Hill! The state had 169 “confirmed and probable” cases in 2011, according to the Courier-Post. In addition to the confirmed cases this year in Cherry Hill, there has also been an outbreak in Hunterdon County and isolated cases in Gloucester County. Antibiotics can lessen the severity of whooping cough (officially pertussis, but obviously I’m going to call it whooping cough) but cases are rising in adolescents and young adults.

So what’s whooping cough, other than a disease with a kickass name?

It’s kind of what it says: a persistent cough followed by a “whoop” when breathing in. The coughs are so strong they cause vomiting. They can also cause rib fractures, hernias and even subconjunctival hemorrhages. Whooping cough has been growing this century, even among adults, as childhood immunities fade. An adult immunization does exist, and parents and school staffers are advised to get it.

And, of course, fewer people are getting all their vaccinations today, which—if you’ve read any comment section of the Internet—you know is either because people believe vaccines cause autism, they are foisted upon us by profit-hungry drug companies, or politicians or are part of a government plot to control our minds. (This last one is true, actually, but what are you going to do?) There are legitimate dangers: Most vaccines do carry a very small risk of death or serious illness, but fewer vaccinated children lead to herd immunity being compromised.

Serious communicable diseases no longer ravage communities. They fade from memory and become a problem solved in the past. People get complacent (or forego) initial immunizations and booster shots. It once made perfect sense to get these vaccines. “In previous generations, when epidemic disease swept through schools and neighborhoods, it was easy to persuade parents that the small risks associated with vaccination were worth it,” Glenn Harlan Reynolds wrote in Popular Mechanics. “When those epidemics stopped—because of widespread vaccinations—it became easy to forget that we still live in a dangerous world.”

Measles, officially declared gone from the United States in 2000, still appears in the U.S., imported from foreign countries. There was a mumps outbreak in Berkeley last year. Some kids who don’t go outside enough have gotten rickets. Rickets! What’s next? Diphtheria—which people my age only know because of its appearance in the educational video game Oregon Trail—has actually decreased this decade compared to the 1980s and 1990s, so the news isn’t all bad.

Will it be diseases from the past that return and end it all in 2012? We’ll probably make it to 2013, but outbreaks like this are enough to make you stop joking around. Well, a little.