Stop the Spread of Whooping Cough

Tackling pertussis begins at home

If you’ve got a baby at home, it might be tough to convince the in-laws that they need a vaccine booster shot. But that’s exactly what federal disease experts are advocating in order to block the spread of pertussis, also known as whooping cough.

The immunization not only protects the person who receives the shot, it reduces the likelihood that pertussis will be passed on to your infant. “Babies in particular are at really, really high risk. They are completely unprotected,” says Mariela Perez, M.D., a family physician.

Cases of whooping cough were on the rise nationally, recently reaching their highest level in 50 years in 2012. The disease can be serious or even fatal to newborns who have not yet received vaccinations. Most deaths associated with pertussis are among infants under one year.


What is whooping cough?

A highly contagious infection of the respiratory tract, pertussis can cause severe coughing spells that make it hard to breathe, eat, or sleep. Its nickname comes from the sound many patients make as they gasp for air at the end of a coughing fit. Whooping cough can lead to pneumonia, cracked ribs, and ruptured blood vessels from coughing so violently.

The illness does not affect everyone that way, however. If you’ve been immunized or infected before, the symptoms may not be as severe. Many people may dismiss it as just a cough they can’t shake, causing them to unknowingly pass it on to others. Research has shown that most infants catch pertussis from family members.


Why vaccination is important

In part, experts attribute the recent increase in cases to a switch in 2005 away from a “whole cell” vaccine that caused some side effects. Today’s vaccine offers good protection, but immunity wanes over time. Even if children get a full round of the vaccine as infants, the immunity starts to wear off by adolescence. Unless they receive another shot, older children can get sick and infect younger siblings. Adults, who may not have been vaccinated for decades, are also at risk of catching and passing on the illness.

“Many adults may think their childhood vaccinations still are protecting them against pertussis,” Dr. Matthew M. Davis said when he released a study on the subject at the University of Michigan.

Although pertussis is treated with antibiotics, prevention is a far better option. That means booster shots for adolescents, teens, expectant moms and adults  — even the elderly.

“Welcoming a baby to the family is a wonderful time, and no one would want to put an infant at risk,” Davis said in a statement. “Teens and adults who have received the Tdap vaccine are less likely to get whooping cough themselves, and therefore less likely to spread whooping cough to other people — including infants.”

It might feel uncomfortable, but addressing the issue of updated vaccinations is definitely a family affair.


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends these vaccinations for whooping cough:

• Infants and Children

DTaP includes protection against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. For maximum protection, children need five DTaP shots. The first three are given at 2, 4, and 6 months of age. The fourth shot is given between 15 and 18 months of age, and a fifth shot is given when a child enters school, at 4 through 6 years of age.

• Preteens and Teens

Preteens should get a booster vaccine, called Tdap, at age 11 or 12. Teens and young adults who didn’t get a booster of Tdap at that time should also get one.


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