Three new cases of pertussis — whooping cough — recently confirmed in Josephine County are a reminder to everyone that vaccinations save lives.

Three new cases of pertussis — whooping cough — recently confirmed in Josephine County are a reminder to everyone that vaccinations save lives.

More alarming than three cases is the fact that 20 cases of whooping cough have been confirmed in Josephine County this year — the largest number in recent history. Last year, there were eight cases; in 2008, only five.

Whooping cough is only one of several preventable diseases that can strike children and, in severe cases, kill them. Infants are most vulnerable. Since 2000, 342 infants have been diagnosed with the disease in Oregon. Half of the total were hospitalized. Since 2003, four infants have died of whooping cough in the state.

Caused by a bacterium found in the mouth, nose and throat, whooping cough is highly contagious, can strike adults as well, and adults can transmit the bacterium to children with whom they are in close contact.

Immunization rates for children in Josephine County are not far out of line with other counties in Oregon, including Jackson County, although they could be better. The Oregon Department of Human Services reports that in 2009, 80.6 percent of Josephine County children had received the recommended four doses of pertussis vaccine by age 2; in Jackson County, the rate was 83.5 percent.

Unfortunately, that left nearly 20 percent of Josephine County children unprotected. The three new cases there are in children ages 9 months, 2 years and 4 years.

Oregon is not alone in seeing increased numbers of pertussis cases. California saw a large outbreak this year, including adults and children, some of whom apparently had been immunized.

The adult booster shot does not confer lifetime immunity, health officials say, and they recommend adults get a booster every 10 years.

Getting the vaccine is not an absolute guarantee of immunity, but the chances of contracting whooping cough are far greater without it.

Likewise, concerns about side effects from vaccines frequently are overblown.

The federal Centers for Disease Control reports serious problems from the pertussis vaccine are unlikely. Moderate effects such as seizures occur in one child out of 14,000, and high fever over 105 degrees in one out of 16,000. Severe effects, defined as serious allergic reaction, occur in fewer than one in a million doses.

An infant or small child who contracts whooping cough is at far greater risk from the disease than he or she would have been from the vaccine. That's why vaccinations make sense.

Virtually every human activity comes with some risk. Driving to work, crossing a busy street, swimming, skiing — all can result in injury or death. Yet we engage in those and many more activities without a second thought.

Vaccinations are no different, except that when we protect ourselves and our children, we protect our neighbors and their children, too.

That's a risk worth taking.