Dr John Bradley
Dr. John Bradley speaks with colleagues at Rady Children's Hospital. Photo | Brad Racino

John Bradley was training to be a pediatrician in San Francisco back in 1976 when one of his sons, just a baby, got his first whooping cough immunization.

Bradley, now the director of Infectious Diseases at Rady Children’s Hospital and a professor at UC San Diego School of Medicine, remembers it well.

“He started fussing within an hour. He was just screaming. And my job as a pediatrician is to know who is sick and who’s not,” Bradley said. “And when you’re screaming, and you’re inconsolable, you’re sick.”

Bradley’s son got a vaccine different from the one that’s given to everyone today. It was called a whole cell vaccine — loaded with a purified version of the bacteria known to cause whooping cough. It did its job. It nearly wiped out the disease by the mid-70s. But it also caused side effects.

“I knew (from) the data that this could cause irritability,” Bradley said, “so I toughed it out. You just hold him, and they’re just screaming, and there’s nothing you can do. As a parent, you feel so bad.”

Bradley’s son screamed himself to sleep, and six hours later woke up fine.

It was reactions like this that led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to license the use of a different vaccine for whooping cough in 1996 and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend using it a year later.

Now, with record numbers of people diagnosed with whooping cough last year — more than 1,800 in San Diego County, 10,800 in California — and outbreaks worldwide, scientists are asking why the disease is making such a vengeful comeback. The answer, in part, has to do with the switch to the new vaccine.

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