Barbara Loe Fisher is Right. She’s Also To Blame.
Mar 03, 2016

Barbara Loe Fisher may be right about one thing.

We need a better Tdap vaccine to prevent pertussis (also known as whooping cough).

However, her opposition to legislation in Indiana that would require hospital employees be up-to-date on Tdap, flu and MMR vaccines is unsupported.  Fisher has publicly defended her position in a FOX28 news clip when she states that Tdap vaccines should not be mandated because they don’t work. However, this is an example of what’s known as a nirvana fallacy.

VYF_FB01Tdap vaccines do work. Maybe not 100% of the time, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work. 

In fact, data shows that pertussis vaccines protect about 7 out of 10 people who receive them.  That’s enough for the World Health Organization to justify using it across the globe to help prevent pertussis, as well as diphtheria and tetanus. Sorry Barb, but in lieu of a better option to prevent a highly infectious and sometimes deadly  disease such as pertussis, the Tdap vaccine is the best defense we have.  It’s certainly better than the 0 out of 10 people who are protected by avoiding vaccination all together.

Interestingly enough, what Fisher avoids admitting is that her opposition to the whole cell pertussis vaccination (DTP) is why we are in the situation we are in today.  Back in the 80’s, Fisher led the charge against the whole cell pertussis vaccine, claiming it had too many adverse events. This prompted the development of a more purified (acellular) pertussis vaccine (DTaP).  By 1997, a newly licensed DTaP vaccine was being recommended by the ACIP in place of the DTP vaccine for the full 5-dose pediatric schedule.  While the new vaccine appeared less likely to provoke adverse events, studies have since shown that it has not been as effective in providing lasting immunity.

The truth is, Fisher has never really been interested in making vaccines safer.  She co-founded the National Vaccine Information Center in 1982 to help organize a movement of vaccine refusal and oppose any public policy that endorses the use of vaccines.

Unfortunately, while we are stuck with a less than ideal vaccine, children like Callie Van Tornhout are dying from pertussis infection.

People of all ages can be affected by pertussis. However, it is most dangerous for babies, as they are at particularly high risk of severe complications, hospitalization and death.  About half of babies younger than one year who get the disease need care in the hospital, and 1 out of 100 babies who get treatment in the hospital die.  Most unvaccinated children who are living with an infected family member will contract pertussis themselves.  There is no real cure for pertussis, only treatments that help address the symptoms.

Families_callie_van_tornhoutIn the case of Callie Van Tornhout, detailed in the FOX28 news clip out of Indiana, transmission of pertussis from a hospital employee to a vulnerable newborn too young for vaccination proved to be deadly.  Callie was only 38 days old and had never been anywhere besides her family home and the hospital. This is why Callie’s mom Katie Van Tornhout is speaking out in support of the proposed Indiana bill (SB 162).

Katie, like the many others who support this bill, believes that hospital employees who have direct contact with patients should take reasonable precautions in order to protect themselves and their patients from preventable diseases like pertussis.  That means they should be up-to-date on ACIP recommended vaccines such as Tdap, flu and MMR, that are proven to be safe and effective.

Katie explains, ”If you’re taking care of my child in the hospital and you’re not vaccinated, then what good is that? You’re putting that baby in danger.  You’re putting everyone in danger.”

While there are exceptions made in situations where vaccination is not medically advised, patients and their families should have the right to know the vaccination status of the hospital employees that are providing care to vulnerable patients like Callie.

Craig and Katie Van Tornhout have lived through a parent’s worst nightmare. They had to bury their precious daughter Callie Grace.  They, like every other parent, would have done anything to protect their child.  They had every intention of vaccinating Callie according to the ACIP’s recommended schedule, but they never got the chance. Callie contracted whooping cough and passed away before she was even old enough to receive the first of the five DTaP vaccines in the series.

In the years since Callie has passed, the ACIP has made new vaccine recommendations that are helping to save lives.

For instance, the ACIP now recommends that pregnant women get immunized in the third trimester of every pregnancy, not only to help prevent a mother from getting pertussis herself and passing the infection on to her baby, but to provide the unborn baby with passive immunity while still in the womb that can go on to help protect the child from pertussis infection in the two months before the child begins the first DTaP vaccine in the series.

VYF_FB02It is also suggested that family members to include fathers, grandparents and siblings, as well as any adult caregivers, should get a Tdap booster at least two weeks before the baby is due to arrive.  The Vaccinate Your Family program even offers a Grandparent Toolkit to ensure that grandparents understand the important role they play in helping to protect the newest member of their family.  By vaccinating those who are close to the child, the child will be less likely to be exposed to infection.

These new recommendations are a move in the right direction, and so is the proposed Indiana bill that will ensure hospital employees are up-to-date on Tdap vaccines, because every effort must be made to protect hospital patients from infectious diseases.

Imagine how devastated Craig and Katie Van Tornhout were to discover that a NICU employee – who was there to help Callie grow in good health those first few days after her birth – was ultimately responsible for infecting Callie with a dangerous disease that ended her life.

A bill like SB 162 in Indiana, and other similar bills around the country, can have such a positive impact on the lives and health of our families.  Whether it is parents, grandparents, teachers, daycare or healthcare workers, all adults should be adequately immunized to reduce the spread of disease to vulnerable people in our communities, such as babies too young to be vaccinated, immunocompromised individuals who may be undergoing other medical treatments, and our fragile elderly population who struggle with weakened immune systems.

After passing the Indiana Senate with a unanimous 50-0 vote, the Indiana House recently deferred SB 162 to study committee.  We are hopeful that SB 162 will be reviewed once again in the next session and the House will be moved to pass “Callie’s Law”. 

In the meantime, if you or someone you know is from Indiana and would like to join us in support of SB 162, please email

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