May 30, 2003
UNPROTECTED PEOPLE: Stories of
people who have suffered or died from vaccine-preventable diseases
CLAIMS LIFE OF TEXAS INFANT
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May 30, 2003
UNPROTECTED PEOPLE #55: PERTUSSIS CLAIMS LIFE OF TEXAS INFANT
The Immunization Action Coalition (IAC) publishes articles about people who
have suffered or died from vaccine-preventable diseases and periodically
devotes an "IAC EXPRESS" issue to such an article. This is the 55th in our
On April 30, Serena Gabrielle King, age 27 days, succumbed to whooping cough
in Austin. She is the third person in Texas to die from the disease this
year. Texas, which has one of the lowest rates of childhood immunization in
the nation, has seen a startling increase in the incidence of pertussis
since 2000. Travis County, where Austin is located, experienced one case in
2000, 54 in 2001, and 111 in 2002.
Infants are particularly likely to contract the disease. According to the "MMWR
Summary of Notifiable Diseases," in the years 1999, 2000, and 2001, between
22 to 27 percent of pertussis cases reported in the United States occurred
in infants under 7 months of age. The increased incidence of pertussis puts
newborns like Serena at considerable risk: Infants do not receive the first
dose of DTaP until 6 weeks to 2 months of age, leaving them extremely
vulnerable in the earliest weeks of life.
[Editorial Note: Since Serena's death, an 11-week-old boy is reported to
have died from pertussis in Oregon, according to an account that appeared in
the "Herald and News," Klamath Falls, OR. Published May 16, the account
states the boy died the previous week; details were not made public at the
Following are a newspaper article as well as a letter to the editor, written
by Serena's grandfather. As both make clear, the only hope of sparing other
infants from Serena's fate lies in increasing rates of childhood
The newspaper article, written by Mary Ann Roser, was published in the
"Austin American-Statesman" on May 7. We are grateful to the "Austin
American-Statesman" for permission to reprint it. The letter to the editor,
written by Troy Rickabaugh, was published May 27 in the newspaper "Mineral
[Copyright "Austin American Statesman"; reprinted with permission]
May 7, 2003
Too Young for Shot, Austin Infant Dies of Whooping Cough
By Mary Ann Roser
A month-old infant died of whooping cough last week in Austin, the first
such death in Travis County in years and a reminder that the highly
contagious disease is in the community and can kill babies.
Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is
on the upswing, and Travis and Burnet counties were among the hardest hit in
the state last year. Officials at the Austin/Travis County Health and Human
Services Department investigated people who came in contact with the
baby--including students at Crockett High School, which the mother attended,
and the doctor's office where the disease went undetected--but could not
find the source of the whooping cough, health department spokesman Bob
"We've exhausted all the leads and all the contacts," Flocke said Monday.
"We don't have anywhere else to go." The health department sent a letter to
teen parents of children in day care at the high school, letting them know
the pertussis exposure could have occurred there, Flocke said.
Whooping cough starts with cold symptoms and
often is spread by older children or adults who do not get as severe a case
or the characteristic "whoop" that younger children get.
Lacee King, the baby's mother, said she hoped the loss of her 27-day-old
daughter, Serena, would educate people, including the medical community,
about pertussis. Her daughter was not diagnosed until just before her death.
She also wants parents to be aware of the importance of vaccinations. "I
hope it can make people aware of what can happen from not being vaccinated,"
said King, 16.
Serena King was too young for the vaccine, which is given at 2 months, 4
months and 6 months, with boosters at 18 months and 4 years. Someone who
might not have been vaccinated could have passed the disease to her. Texas
ranks near the bottom of the states in childhood vaccination rates. Some
parents opt out of the pertussis vaccine because of side effects, such as
fever. The vaccine is about 80 percent effective, though protection wanes as
the child ages.
Serena, born April 3, developed jaundice and cold symptoms about two weeks
after she was born, and King took her to Carousel Pediatrics. The baby was
seen by a nurse, who told King that her child had normal nasal problems,
When Serena began coughing and vomiting, King took her back and was told her
daughter had gastroesophageal reflux, a digestive problem, King said. When
the baby's condition worsened April 27, King and her husband, Rickey King,
rushed her to the hospital. A day later, she was diagnosed with pertussis,
and on Wednesday, she was dead. "I think Carousel Pediatrics had a big part
in this," Lacee King said.
Glenn Wood, the senior physician at Carousel, said pertussis is hard to
diagnose early on. Dozens of children come in every day with coughs and
runny noses, and it would not be feasible to test every child for pertussis,
he said. After reviewing Serena's chart and records of her visits on April
16 and April 22, he said that while his nursing staff treated the child,
"There's not anything I would have done differently based on what I'm
"It's a terrible, unfortunate case, but it illustrates how important it is
to get vaccinated," he said. "There are a lot of kids behind on their
vaccinations, and a lot can't get in to see their doctor, especially kids on
Medicaid and on CHIP," the Children's Health Insurance Program.
For a long time, pertussis was seen as virtually eradicated. But in recent
years, it has made a comeback. Death rates in Texas have risen from zero or
one a year to five in 2001 and four in 2002, said David Bastis, program
manager in the immunization division at the Texas Department of Health. So
far this year, two deaths have been reported in Texas. A check of records to
1990 showed no other pertussis deaths in Travis County.
Why the increase in deaths statewide? "There's more pertussis out there
because of low immunization coverage and waning immunity in adolescents and
adults," Bastis said. "That increases the chance that babies and infants
will get pertussis." Last year, 111 pertussis cases were reported in Travis
County, up from 54 in 2001 and one in 2000. There were 235 pertussis cases
in Burnet County in 2002, more than any in Texas.
Troy Rickabaugh, Lacee King's father, called the newspaper about his
granddaughter's death in the hope of educating others about the potentially
deadly consequences of pertussis. "If we can save one life," he said, "that
would be wonderful."
[From the "Mineral Wells Index"]
May 27, 2003
Don't Let a Child Die over Lack of Immunizations
My beautiful granddaughter is dead.
Serena's death was totally preventable, but someone made a bad decision not
to get immunized for whooping cough.
Her mother, my daughter, went to all her prenatal doctor appointments,
watched her diet, took care of herself so she could take care of her baby.
Serena was too young to even begin getting vaccinations, but you can be
assured she would have received all her shots on time. All the love and
caring our family gave Serena ultimately made no difference because someone
else chose not to be immunized.
Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a totally preventable disease. But only if
everyone lives by the Golden Rule and does the right thing. No one has the
right to make a decision for himself that can hurt others. And that's what
happens when all children are not immunized. Their parents make the wrong
decision, and someone else's child gets hurt!
Serena lived 27 days in the loving arms of her family. She died because
someone in the community did not get immunized.
You can do something to make sure other families don't suffer the pain we
are suffering. You can get immunized. And you can ask your state senator to
support two bills pending in the Texas Senate: HB 1920 and HB 1921. One bill
calls for the Texas Department of Health to keep a database that doctors can
use to see if a child needs to be immunized. The other provides vaccines for
children who don't have the insurance coverage to pay for the immunizations.
Please, don't let another Serena die needlessly.
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