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Infectious Disease

Two Months After Whooping Cough: An Update from Tara Hills and Her Family

By and June 16, 2015 5 Comments

We’ve received a lot of questions from our readers about the status of Tara Hills, the formerly anti-vax mother whose 7 children caught whooping cough, just a week before their updated vaccination schedule was supposed to begin. It’s been a couple of months since we’ve posted an update, so we interviewed Tara this week.

Read more about Tara’s story:
Learning the Hard Way: My Journey from #AntiVaxx to Science – April 8, 2015
Whooping Cough is so Rotten, That We Couldn’t Post the Video – April 9, 2015
With 7 Kids in Recovery from Whooping Cough, Tara Hills Answers Your Questions – April 15, 2015

Here’s what she told told us:

So first up, even though it’s more than two months later we still get emails and messages asking about how your kids are doing now. How is everyone doing post whooping cough?

I’m touched that 2 months later people around the world care enough to ask about our family. Really touched. Physically everyone is well. The 7 kids responded to the antibiotic treatment and turned a corner within days. That cough is awful though and has lingered in our youngest. It can linger up to 12 weeks so we’re hoping it goes away soon. Mercifully no one went into respiratory distress so we don’t expect long-term damage.

Emotionally the kids are fine and life is normal again. I’m another story. I still think of this everyday. Painful reminders, what ifs, gratitude, self-consciousness as strangers say they ‘know me’. Many, many lessons learned the hard way.

How about how the medical community in Ottawa responded to you during and after the crisis? Did you feel any judgement from your doctor, the hospital or public health agencies?

They were excellent. We were assigned a nurse from Ottawa Public Health from day 1 when the results came back positive. She was our go-to through and after the crisis. She worked with us (over the phone) step by step, was very calm, helpful, and professional. We were in great hands.

Something which shocked Julia and Leslie was that other parents seemed to be understanding and supportive of you online, but both the pro-science and anti-vaccine communities seemed to have harsh words for you but for different reasons. Have you lost any friends in either camp due to your post?

Our story hitting international news was shocking and surreal. I was willing to ‘speak into the microphone’ even though I felt sick in front of such a huge audience. But we stood by our core message and still do. I stayed away from news comment feeds because I was too involved and overwhelmed with everything. It was all so “out there” so the harsh words didn’t affect me. Closer to home, all our key relationships were fine. Some friendships were strained temporarily and only 1 was lost, mostly due to disagreements with how I handled what was a very difficult situation for our family.

It was hard to hear the harsh judgement from the pro-science community. We thought they’d embrace us with open arms. We had already learned our lesson and booked the catch-up appointments. We expected the anti-vaccine community to react harshly to us, but to have the pro-science community rub our faces in a pile of shame was disgustingly unhelpful in advancing their cause. Some asked “what if it had been polio?” I know! Don’t you think I KNOW? That’s exactly why we shared our story and withstood the firestorm from every angle.

WC TimelineWere there any misconceptions that bothered you?

Some people have said that whopping cough is no biggie so they “aren’t convinced” or alarmed enough to reconsider examining the vaccine issue much less get their kids or themselves vaccinated. For most of our kids it wasn’t a nightmare, but it was awful for the youngest ones. The two youngest would cough so hard they threw up, none of us slept that week.

Our story was illustrative of a vaccine-preventable illness sweeping through one family. That’s why I shared our story in that context. Some people online dismissed it and acted like the whole thing was one big stay-cation for our family. That truly shocked me. I couldn’t believe that after hearing the sounds of our children struggling to breath through coughing fits they would dismiss the risk to infants. It was beyond shocking.

Waiting to make sure our 5-month-old niece and 2 immune-compromised family members were going to be okay was indescribable. I had so much guilt and fear, there are no words to describe the waiting to hear if our infant niece was hospitalized or worse, all because of us.

For me one of the most shocking things was people alleging there were ‘holes’ in my story and that I was a paid actress. Even more bizarre is that some people alleged that I was covering up a more scandalous truth. Are you kidding me? I would have given anything for our family to not have gone through what we did!

When you changed your minds about vaccines do you think (honestly) there was anything anyone could have said to you to change your mind?

Maybe? How they approached me would have made a huge difference. Respectfully validating and addressing versus sarcastically dismissing my concerns and questions would have made a difference. Building our trust through caring, patient dialogue would have helped. Just talking to me at all like an intelligent caring person would have helped.

If someone had said in a genuinely kind tone. “Tara, you are a great mom who loves her kids dearly. I know there is so much confusion about vaccines. I care about you and want to help you make a informed decision you feel really confident in. Would you be willing to share some of your concerns with me so we could go through them one by one? In the end it’s your decision. I want to make sure you are totally confident in your decision since it’s so important.” I would like to think I would have stepped willingly into that kind of conversation. There was no threat or attack that would trigger defensiveness.

It’s hard to talk to loved ones about vaccines. Hopefully our sharing will help people have those talks in a constructive way, guide them to a starting point they can relate to, and maybe help save some lives.

You said in an earlier post that the Disneyland measles outbreak was part of what contributed to your rethinking of your anti-vaccination stance. When you finally began your new wave of research, can you clarify how that happened, and how did you look for and find your information?

It had been building for some time. Seeing the hatred and fear towards people who didn’t vaccinate (like us) was alarming. I knew if push came to shove, and we lost the freedom to choose, we would have to be rock solid certain of our stance. So in February, I came out of the anti-vax closet by posting on my personal Facebook wall that I was that mom. That I felt caught between a horrible rock and terrible place. That somehow no matter how much I searched for solid answers I’d never really know. That it would boil down to a coin toss with our kids’ health in the balance. So I set out to prove we were right NOT to vaccinate. I had my kids’ health at stake and my pride to defend. So I started reading anti-vaccine books, publications, and popular sites to bolster my position. But I knew a fair trial demanded I listen to both sides. A public health advocate (The Scientific Parent’s Leslie Waghorn) suggested I list my key concerns/questions, and offered to go through them with me one by one. She disarmed my defensive posture by validating that it was okay to ask questions and even better to seek solid answers. Turns out that all my concerns boiled down to only a few key questions, which I addressed in my first Q&A.

Were your older children aware of your decision to stop vaccinating, and if so how did you talk to them about your decision to resume vaccination?

Our oldest (10) and I had discussed it back in February or March when she saw me doing a lot of research and reading about vaccines. So she had the backstory when the pertussis hit our family. I talked to her using an analogy of imaginary kids playing at our park. It went like this: What if after playing Johnny, Suzy came along and whispered “don’t play with Johnny. His family is dirty and will make your family sick!” What should you do? Just believe her words or go check her story to see if it’s true? How could you know for sure? Then I bridged to the vaccine issue, shared our story from when she was little, how all the Suzys were talking and we got scared and confused. We froze when we should have dug deeper for solid answers. A painful life lesson I hope our children will not repeat.

Do you have any advice for parents who are skeptical about vaccines or have questions?

That I commend them for taking the time and effort to focus on this vital part of parenting! To make sure to consider their biases and check their sources carefully and to not cherry-pick the information they like best. They should also talk to their doctors before making any decisions about vaccines. Our doctor was very understanding when we said we wanted to catch the kids up on their vaccines. We didn’t consult him before we stopped vaccinating because we were afraid of being judged or worse. I now wish I’d talked to him because he was very understanding.


– Edited by Leslie Waghorn and Julia Bennett

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Categories: Infectious Disease + Vaccines

I Had The Measles 48 Years Ago and I Still Suffer Its Effects

By June 15, 2015 4 Comments

I have just finished reading a plea that went viral on Facebook from a Winnipeg, Manitoba father, Neal Cohen, whose five-month-old baby girl was just diagnosed with the measles. My heart and my thoughts go out to Neal, his wife, and their little girl. The rage this father expressed in his open letter is completely understandable. In a society that has more information at their fingertips than they have ever had, it amazes me that the opinion of a celebrity such as Jenny McCarthy or some selective information can sway people away from their common sense.

I am a mother of two and a grandmother of three (soon to be four) and I am not going to offer my opinion, only my experience. You see, I had the measles when I was a child. I am nearly 60 now, but the experience was so horrible that I still vividly remember it.

It was deep in the summer and very hot. For no reason I could think of, I just started feeling listless. Considering the time of year I thought it could be from the heat. It didn’t get better so I went to bed early that day.

The next morning was my 12th birthday. I woke up from a bad night’s sleep with a raging fever, my eyes felt like they were on fire, and I couldn’t see properly. My head was pounding out an anvil chorus so badly that I wanted to scream and every bone in my body ached. On the heels of that I realized I had developed a rash. It seemed like every time I checked, the rash was moving at record pace, soon covering my entire body from head to toe. I was very, very sick.

I remember my mother on the phone with the doctor and watching the rash come out on my brother. Yes, misery was going to have company. My mother was terrified that my brother and I were going to be left permanently disabled. She was terrified for my hearing; you see as an early 12th birthday present, she’d just let me get my ears pierced. Later as a mother myself I could understand her visceral fear for my life and my brother’s.

The doctor told my mother that for me it was going to be bad. Apparently 12 was somewhat old to have the measles, so the old style of treatment applied. I was to stay in bed nursing chills that rocked my body. My eyes were not to be strained under ANY circumstances; I was not allowed to read books, no TV, no daylight, nothing that could take my mind off the excruciating pain I was in. I had no energy for any of those activities anyways, I was in so much pain I wished I would die.

I spent a week like this, and my mother spent a week fearing the worst, but I obviously survived. Even so, I have been living with the effects of the measles for nearly 48 years. While I had been the picture of health before, since the measles, I continue to suffer from blinding headaches and middle ear issues that have only gotten worse as I have gotten older. I’ve been told that each of these problems – which did not exist before the measles – is likely the result of the severity of the virus’ attack on my body.

Now as a grandmother knowing what the measles is like personally I don’t understand why anyone would think of putting their child through something like what my brother and I went through. A simple shot can prevent terrible illness and lifelong suffering. It bothers me when I hear antivaxxers say, “nobody dies from the measles.” While I survived, I did not survive unscathed. Even the word “antivaxxer” sounds like a new disease.

I now have two precious grandsons, a granddaughter and one more grandchild on the way. I cannot imagine them being endangered by someone who listened to a celebrity, or cherry-picked information on the internet instead of referring to their doctor. Please give your children a fighting chance and talk to your doctor about vaccines. Don’t let your child, or my grandchildren, suffer like I had to. – Edited by Leslie Waghorn


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Categories: Accidents, Injuries, + Abuse, Chronic Illnesses + Conditions, Infectious Disease + Vaccines, Policy, Politics, + Pop Health

The Deadly Toxin You May Not Have Heard About

By June 10, 2015 1 Comment

In Spain a little boy is being kept alive by machines and eight other children have been hospitalized after being infected with a deadly toxin. This toxin can cause the nose of an infected individual to drip blood and pus-filled infection, the roof of their mouth to bleed and turn green and black, can obstruct their airways, and can cause patches of skin to become scaly and leather-like.

The toxin invades the body’s mucus membranes, enters the blood stream, and multiplies rapidly. Most alarming is that the first symptoms this toxin in the body are similar to that of a cold, until the inside of the victim’s mouth turns gray and scaly, by which point the toxin has likely already entered the bloodstream and attacked the other mucus membranes in the body, and the patient has likely already infected other people.

Twenty percent of infected patients under the age of five will die and 5-10% of patients over the age of five will die. That mortality rate has remained unchanged for 50 years, despite medical advances.

This toxin is caused by a naturally occurring bacteria of the same name called Corynebacterium diphtheriae, better known as diphtheria.

Diphtheria is one of those diseases we think about in the same way we think about cholera, typhoid, and consumption (TB). We think of it as a disease that people used to die from on The Oregon Trail, but that it’s not actually a thing anymore. Except that it is.

In the 1930s, diphtheria killed between 13,000 and 15,000 individuals annually in the United States. A diphtheria vaccine was developed in the 1920s, and became widely available in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The disease’s prevalence rate dropped off to a statistical zero by the 1980s.   Most people are vaccinated against diphtheria in childhood as a part of the DTaP vaccine, which protects against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough). People older than the age of 11 need a Tdap booster shot every seven to nine years. The differences between the DTaP and Tdap vaccines are the antigen concentrations in each shot.

Diphtheria InfocardDiphtheria is in the news again due to a cluster of cases in Spain; in the Girona province of Catalonia, Spain (very close to the border of France), the index case (“patient zero”) is an unvaccinated little boy. Heartbreakingly, as of the writing this post the boy is in critical condition on life support, and his parents have expressed that they “feel terrible guilt” over not vaccinating their son and feel hoodwinked by the antivaccine community. Several months ago Tara Hills, a mother of seven, wrote on our blog about the guilt she felt after not vaccinating her children and their subsequent battle with whooping cough.

While the index patient in Spain was not vaccinated, initial reports of the subsequent eight infections indicate that the other patients were vaccinated. The reports, however, don’t indicate the age of the new patients (diphtheria is particularly virulent in those under age five) or if the eight had completed the World Health Organization’s full vaccination schedule. Additionally, those who have been vaccinated against diphtheria tend to develop a milder form of the disease as their bodies already have some of the antibodies needed to fight the bacteria and the toxin.

Treating diphtheria is complicated, many impacting factors including the age of the individual, their vaccination status, when in the disease’s progress they sought medical treatment, and how the bacteria entered the body can all vary the severity of the illness. Prevention is the first line of defense (get your shots, people!) but once infected, antitoxins, antibiotics and supportive care are the standard treatment. Complicating matters even further is that the diphtheria antitoxin is not a standard drug that hospitals keep on hand. In fact it’s only available through the CDC directly for us here in the US. The antitoxin also won’t neutralize existing pockets in the mucus membranes, it will only prevents the progression of the disease by neutralizing the toxin that’s circulating in the bloodstream. This is why the death rate from diphtheria remains so high.

As Rene Najera pointed out on Monday, many diseases are just a plane ride away. This disease could even easily spread to areas of southern France given its proximity to the border and the nature of cross-European transit, which is largely train and short-flight based. Even if you don’t plan to travel to Spain any time soon, now may be a good idea to check in with your doctor and make sure you and your family are up to date on your Tdap and DTaP shots. Heck, most health departments give them away for free (FREE!).

Editor’s note: Since the publication of this post, the little boy has since passed away. You can read more here.

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Categories: Infectious Disease + Vaccines, Policy, Politics, + Pop Health

Is It Time to Freak Out About MERS?

By June 8, 2015 3 Comments

Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome virus (MERS) is a nasty infection and one you definitely don’t want to get. A recent outbreak of Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome virus (MERS) in Korea has a lot of people on edge, and for good reason. But what are the chances that you, sitting at home in the United States and other countries where MERS is not active, will get MERS? What are the chances that it will spread like wildfire and make many people sick and kill even more? And is it really that deadly? Let’s take these questions one by one and separate fact from worry.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the signs and symptoms of MERS are fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Those symptoms sound similar to just about any upper respiratory tract infection, but complications from MERS include kidney failure and severe pneumonia. Partly due to these complications, between 30% and 40% of patients with MERS cases have died, which is a very high mortality rate. Currently there isn’t a specific treatment for MERS, much like a cold or a stomach bug, treatment is supportive (fluids, fever reducers, pain killers etc…). The high mortality rate is why public health agencies across the world are on high alert.

Good for us (bad for MERS) unlike the flu or the measles, it turns out MERS isn’t easy to catch.

The MERS virus is a variant of the corona virus, a virus that has many different strains and causes different kinds of respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases. You’ll sometimes see “MERS” written as “MERS-CoV,” with “CoV” meaning “coronavirus.” Because the MERS strain of coronavirus is relatively new to humans, scientists are still working on fully understanding how it is transmitted.

One thing is for sure, close contact between people leads to transmission. Close contact can include healthcare providers caring for people with MERS and not using appropriate personal protective equipment or infectious disease precautions. Some of these providers not using those precautions have been infected. Also, people hospitalized with MERS patients have been infected, suggesting that the virus is spread via aerosols (e.g. sneezes and coughs) or is airborne (e.g. through breathing the same air).

MERS-CoV Infographic copyI mentioned before that MERS has a mortality rate between 30% and 40% and the high hospital transmission rate may be over-inflating the virus’ actual mortality rate. People who are already in the hospital for another illness or condition and contract MERS are likely to have more complications and worse outcomes (and a higher mortality rate).

Because MERS is so new (and until now has been relatively contained) disease surveillance systems have been only picking up cases that are hospitalized. It will likely take a while before systems are in place to detect sub-clinical cases (i.e. cases who don’t become sick enough to seek hospital care).

With that said, you may remember the H1N1 pandemic several years ago. In the US alone, thousands of people became so sick they sought care from their doctors and hospitals. We aren’t seeing this with MERS, which tells us that MERS is either a mild virus in those who are otherwise healthy or isn’t easily transmitted at the community level.

According to the Korean Ministry of Health, the first person identified in the current outbreak (what we call in public health the index case) was reported as having traveled recently to the Middle East. Seven days after his arrival, the index case sought care at different healthcare facilities in Korea, likely spreading the virus in those settings.

Taking all of this into consideration, it is very possible that MERS could spread to other parts of the world past Korea, in fact, there have already been cases in the United States. These cases in the US were unconnected and over 500 people were potentially exposed, but no one contracted the virus outside of the index cases.

We live in a world where a jet can depart the Middle East and be in any part of the world in a matter of hours. Combine that with the incubation time (time for symptoms to develop from the initial exposure) that MERS is displaying of about 2 to 14 days, and you could have plenty of cases popping up all over the globe.

So what is keeping that from happening?

First, it seems that exposure to camels or camel products (like milk) were the primary source of MERS infections in the Middle East. Second, modern healthcare facilities have strict infection control protocols that may be keeping infections from occurring within them. Third, as I mentioned above, the person-to-person transmission in the community – outside of healthcare facilities – seems to be limited.

In the United States, between 3,000 and 49,000 people die from influenza each year. Half a million of us die from smoking-related diseases like lung cancer, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Another half a million will die from heart disease associated with poor diet and lack of physical activity. And over 30,000 will die from traffic-related accidents. At this time and in the United States, MERS is on our public health radar, but in your day-to-day life it should be your least concern.

The best things you can do for your health (and others) are to wash your hands, eat a balanced diet, wash your hands, get plenty of exercise and plenty of rest, wash your hands, and follow your healthcare providers advice at all times, buckle-up in the car, and wash your hands. Also, don’t forget to wash your hands.

Edited by Leslie Waghorn


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Categories: Infectious Disease + Vaccines, Policy, Politics, + Pop Health

With 7 Kids in Recovery from Whooping Cough, Tara Hills Answers Your Questions

By and April 15, 2015 12 Comments
Tara Hills Luke

Tara cuddling with her recovering 10 month old.

When I wrote our story last week, I had no idea our story would go ‘viral’ (no pun intended).  We are a private family, as most homeschooling families are, so we thought that maybe a few people in our community would see it.  We never imagined that our story would travel around the globe.  As encouraged as we are to hear about the positive impact our decision to share it has had on many others, it has also been hard handling a real medical crisis in the face of intense global media and public scrutiny. Last Tuesday, when the positive test results came in 4 days late, the waves of chaos hit us with a fury that we can’t possibly describe. Everything that day was a blur, from me editing my original post to include our diagnosis, to the reality of dealing with 7 active cases of pertussis.  

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Categories: Infectious Disease + Vaccines, Policy, Politics, + Pop Health

Whooping Cough is so Rotten, That We Couldn’t Post the Video

By and April 9, 2015 9 Comments


We posted this video to our Facebook page, an interview on CBC of Tara Hills, the mother of seven children in quarantine with whooping cough. She spoke to the CBC Ottawa news affiliate shortly after her story on our page went viral.

Later on Wednesday evening, Tara followed up with us by sending us several videos of her children suffering from the classic “whoop” that pertussis is so infamous for, and we have to admit, readers, it was a tough (if not horrifying) watch. We appreciate Tara’s raw and open approach to sharing the perils of not vaccinating children against deadly illnesses and her desire to help parents in her community recognize the symptoms.

However, we decided it was too much to show in the best interest of the children involved. Their health outcomes are unknown at this time, but we’re hoping for the best for them and we know they’re getting the best care possible.

So instead, we’d like to bring you an edited audio file of the sounds of some, but not all of her children, so you can get a better understanding of the impact of this type of illness  – and why vaccinations are so very important to prevent suffering.

For more information on whooping cough, visit or talk to your health care provider.

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Categories: Infectious Disease + Vaccines, Policy, Politics, + Pop Health

Learning the Hard Way: My Journey from #AntiVaxx to Science

By April 8, 2015 158 Comments

I’m writing this from quarantine, the irony of which isn’t lost on me.

Emotionally I’m a bit raw. Mentally a bit taxed. Physically I’m fine.  All seven of my unvaccinated children have whooping cough, and the kicker is that they may have given it to my five month old niece, too young to be fully vaccinated.

We’d had a games night at our house in March, my brother-in-law had a full-blown cold, so when the kids started with a dry cough a few days later I didn’t think much of it.  But a week after the symptoms started the kids weren’t improving, in fact they were getting worse.  And the cough. No one had a runny nose or sneezing but they all had the same unproductive cough.  Between coughing fits they were fine.

Then a few days later at midnight I snapped. My youngest three children were coughing so hard they would gag or vomit. I’d never seen anything like this before.  Watching our youngest struggle with this choking cough, bringing up clear, stringy mucus – I had heard of this before somewhere.  My mom said I had it when I was a kid. I snapped into ‘something is WRONG’ mode.

I jumped on Google to type in “child cough.” My kids had all but one symptom of pertussis, none of them had the characteristic “whoop.” But they had everything else.

We had vaccinated our first three children on an alternative schedule and our youngest four weren’t vaccinated at all.  We stopped because we were scared and didn’t know who to trust.  Was the medical community just paid off puppets of a Big Pharma-Government-Media conspiracy?  Were these vaccines even necessary in this day and age? Were we unwittingly doing greater harm than help to our beloved children? So much smoke must mean a fire so we defaulted to the ‘do nothing and hope nothing bad happens’ position.

Symptoms and timeline of pertussis (whooping cough)

Learn the signs of pertussis (whooping cough). Click to enlarge.

For years relatives tried to persuade us to reconsider through emails and links, but this only irritated us and made us defensive.  Secretly, I hoped I would find the proof I needed to hold the course, but deep down I was resigned to only find endless conflicting arguments that never resolved anything.  No matter if we vaccinated or not, I thought, it would be nothing more than a coin toss with horrible risks either way.

When the Disneyland measles outbreak happened my husband and I agreed to take a new look and weigh the evidence on both sides. A friend suggested I write out my questions so we could tackle them one by one.  Just getting it out on paper helped so much. I only ended up with a handful of questions. But more potent than my questions were my biases.

I just didn’t trust civic government, the medical community, the pharmaceutical industry, and people in general.  By default, I had excluded all research available from any major, reputable organization.  Could all the in-house, independent, peer-reviewed clinical trials, research papers and studies across the globe ALL be flawed, corrupt and untrustworthy?

The final shift came when I connected the dots between a small, but real measles outbreak in my personal circles this time last year.  But for the grace of God, our family was one step from contracting measles in our mostly under-or-unvaccinated 7 kids.  Maybe we could have weathered that storm unscathed in personal quarantine.  But in the 4 highly contagious days before any symptoms show we easily could have passed on our infection to my sister’s toddlers or her 34-week-old son in the NICU.

When I connected the dates for everyone involved it chilled me to the bone.  I looked again at the science and evidence for community immunity and found myself gripped with a very real sense of personal and social responsibility before God and man.  The time had come to make a more fully informed decision than we did 6 years ago.  I sat down with our family doctor and we put together a catch-up vaccination schedule for our children.

That schedule that was supposed to start the week after I found myself in the waiting room of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) with my 10-month-old son, waiting to confirm if he had whooping cough.

I said before that the irony isn’t lost on me that I’m writing this from quarantine.  For six years we were frozen in fear from vaccines, and now we are frozen because of the disease.  My oldest two are getting better, the youngest four are getting worse and fast.  Ottawa Public Health has been so helpful and communicative, trying to get us the help we need while keeping the community safe.  We are under quarantine and starting antibiotics.  Tonight, the baby started ‘whooping’.  I did the right thing going to the hospital when I did.  I can only hope this painfully honest sharing will help others.

I am not looking forward to any gloating or shame as this ‘defection’ from the antivaxx camp goes public, but, this isn’t a popularity contest.  Right now my family is living the consequences of misinformation and fear.  I understand that families in our community may be mad at us for putting their kids at risk.  I want them to know that we tried our best to protect our kids when we were afraid of vaccination and we are doing our best now, for everyone’s sake, by getting them up to date.  We can’t take it back … but we can learn from this and help others the same way we have been helped.

Vaccination is a serious decision about our personal and public health that can’t be made out of fear, capitulation or following any crowd.  No one was more surprised than us to find solid answers that actually laid our fears to rest.  I am confident that anyone with questions can find answers.  I would only advise them to check your biases, sources and calendar: Time waits for no parent.

Read more about Tara’s story:
Whooping Cough is so Rotten, That We Couldn’t Post the Video – April 9, 2015
With 7 Kids in Recovery from Whooping Cough, Tara Hills Answers Your Questions – April 15, 2015
Two Months After Whooping Cough: An Update from Tara Hills and Her Family – June 16, 2015


Editor’s Note: Comments on this post are being moderated per The Scientific Parent comment policy.

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Categories: Infectious Disease + Vaccines, Policy, Politics, + Pop Health

H7N9 Might Be The Next Pandemic, But It Might Not

By March 20, 2015 No Comments

Remember that wordless scene at the end of Steven Soderbergh’s thriller, Contagion? The setting was a remote jungle, and the only actors on screen were two animals: a bat and a pig. In the chain of disease transmission, humans are only one or two links away from contracting seemingly distant zoonotic (from animals) viruses. Due to the growing incidence of droughts, wildfires, and deforestation, it’s quite easy for suburban residents to become neighbors with animals that carry diseases we don’t know much about, and certainly don’t want.

I spent a good portion of my career working in biosurveillence. One disease I especially loved chasing was H5N1 Avian Influenza (AI), aka “Bird Flu.”
AI has made its appearance in global news recently after scientists in China identified an influenza strain with “pandemic potential.” This should ring a bell since the disease of interest – H7N9 – caused panic back in February of 2013 after 133 people became severely ill with this particular strain. Well it’s reemerged and so far 571 confirmed cases have been reported with 212 related deaths. It is important to note that 99% of those cases occurred in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

Nature published this study and stated that H7N9 should be considered a “major candidate to emerge as a pandemic strain in humans.” This conclusion sounds terrifying, but I would caution you not to think that the next Great Plague is upon us. The virus appears to be mutating frequently (not uncommon), and some genetic changes can increase a virus’ potential to reach pandemic proportions. However, it’s pretty premature to make that sort of conclusion about what’s happening with H7N9. To date, H7N9 only is spreading in live-poultry markets and slaughterhouses in East Asia.

Allow me to break this down a bit. H7N9 first emerged in birds before spreading to humans – much like H5N1 and the infamous 2009 H1N1 “swine” flu. As I mentioned above, we’re only 2 degrees of separation away from a number of animal-borne diseases. Influenza viruses are made up of two components: hemagglutinin (H) and neurominidase (N). Hemagglutinin allows the flu particles to attach to the cell membrane and neurominidase enzymes makes sure the virus doesn’t get stuck on its way out. There are 18 types of hemagglutinin and 11 types of neurominidase and ALL of them have been detected in birds. Through sequencing, the researchers were able to determine that today’s outbreak is linked to the 2013 virus – which means it’s growing in diversity.viral shift

The real concern will happen IF there is significant viral mutations causing the disease to skip a step on the disease chain and become spreadable from person-to-person. This has happened before (in 2009 with H1N1) but not always. Take for instance, H5N1. To date, infection has only occurred with direct contact with infected poultry.
All that to say, there’s a race in the infectious disease community and the finish line is identifying the next big pandemic. For decades, scientists have scoured books, medical journals, and remote corners of the world (and now the internet) for indicators and warnings of a newly emerging public health threat. I can promise you that I’m following this closely, and you readers will be the first to know should anything become a serious threat.

For now, just get your seasonal flu shots.



Tsan-Yuk Lam, T. Zhou, B. Wang et al. Letter: Dissemination, divergence and establishment of H7N9 Influenza Viruses in China. Nature. Published online March 11, 2015. Retrieved March 22, 2015.

rld Health Organization. WHO Risk Assessment: Human Infections with Avian Influenza A(H7N9). Published February 28, 2014. Retrieved March 22, 2015.

World Health Organization. WHO Risk Assessment: Human Infections with Avian Influenza A(H7N9) virus. 23 February, 2015. March 22, 2015.

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Categories: Infectious Disease + Vaccines, Policy, Politics, + Pop Health