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Are you protecting your newborn from whooping cough?

May 14, 2012

If you’ve been reading the news the past few weeks, you may have heard about the outbreak of whooping cough, also known as pertussis, that has reached epidemic levels in Washington. There have been more than 1,000 cases reported already this year in the state, and it is reminiscent of the 2010 California outbreak that infected more than 9,000 people and resulted in the death of 10 infants.

And it’s no coincidence that Washington state has the highest percentage of kindergarteners in the country who haven’t received one or more of the recommended vaccinations while also seeing an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease.

Thanks to the incredible advances in the medical community over the last several decades, many of the devastating illnesses that often claimed the lives of young children, such as polio and smallpox, have dramatically declined. Millions (Yes, I said millions!) of lives have been saved because of the power of vaccines.

Yet, in some ways that blessing is also a burden. Today, we don’t see our children suffering the crippling effects of these illnesses, and it makes some question whether or not the multitude of vaccines really are necessary for our kids. But, the recent incidence of whooping cough is a good reminder to all of us that vaccines DO prevent illness, they DO save lives and they ARE important for the health of our kids.

What is whooping cough (also known as pertussis)?

Pertussis is a respiratory illness that is caused by bacteria, which is passed from person to person in close contact with one another. Infection may initially look like the common cold with a runny nose, congestion, sneezing, mild fever or cough. However, unlike the common cold, after 1-2 weeks severe coughing can begin. Children and adults can experience violent coughing fits that make it difficult to breathe. Infants may not cough at all, but may have periodic pauses in their breathing.

While people of any age can get pertussis, it is most dangerous for infants. Babies less than 6 months of age will usually need to be hospitalized, and some will develop complications such as pneumonia or convulsions. The disease is fatal for 1 of every 100 infants.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that infants receive the DTaP vaccine at 2, 4, 6, 15 months and 4 years of age. The DTaP vaccine is a combination that protects against tetanus, diptheria and pertussis.

Children who have received the series will also need a booster shot (called Tdap) at 11 or 12 years of age. All adults should receive a one-time dose of Tdap as well.

How can I protect my newborn if he is too young for a vaccine?

Very young infants are not only the most vulnerable to complications and even death due to the disease, but they are also the least protected since they cannot receive the vaccine until 2 months of age.

But, there’s a way you can still protect your newborn.

Most infants who contract the disease do so from their immediate family members and caregivers. Since an infant is vulnerable if exposed, the best and safest thing to do is surround them for their first months of life exclusively with people who have been vaccinated against pertussis.

This is known as “cocooning”- providing a barrier of protection in the form of family and loved ones. This means not only Mom, Dad and siblings should be vaccinated, but also grandparents and other caregivers who will be spending time with baby. When infants are cocooned in this way, the likelihood of contracting the disease is nearly nonexistent.