Whooping cough made the news again today as it took the life of another baby in California. The state has had nearly 6000 confirmed cases (and probably many more unconfirmed). Tragically, 10 infants have now died in the state. All of the babies were under 3 months of age, and 9 of the 10 babies were under eight weeks of age—which means they were too young to be vaccinated to protect against the infection.
But California is not the only state seeing a rise in whooping cough. It's all over the country. My hometown of Austin has several recently reported cases across the city. Believe me, I am seeing plenty of kids in my office who have received notes from their daycare or school that they have been exposed to a child with confirmed whooping cough. Parents, with good reason, are concerned and want their child to be checked out.
So, why are we seeing such a rise in whooping cough right now? Isn't it a vaccine preventable disease? Is it simply because some parents are choosing not to vaccinate their kids? Well, it would be terrific if 100% of children were vaccinated but it's not that simple of a solution. Infectious diseases are much more complex.
1. Whooping cough epidemics occur in cycles about every 3-5 years. The last major epidemic was in 2005, so we were destined to see an uptick in infections this year.
2. Immunity to whooping cough does not last forever — whether you are vaccinated for protection or even if you have had the disease. Immunity wears off over time (listen up teens and adults!) That’s why it is so important to get the whooping cough booster shot (called Tdap).
3. Babies cannot receive their first vaccination for whooping cough until they are two months of age. And evn then, they do not have adequate immunity until they have received at least three doses of whooping cough vaccine (at six months of age). So, babies rely on those around them to be protected by vaccination and not spread the infection to them. Up to 80 percent of babies get whooping cough from a loved one in their household (most often, it’s spread from their mom).
4. Adults often don’t know they have the illness. It may look like a common cold at the beginning of the infection and then it becomes a cough that just lingers on forever (whooping cough is also known as the “100 Day Cough”). People are contagious for the first four weeks of the illness.
So, what can you do? Make sure your child is up to date on his shots and make sure you are, too. If you can’t remember the last time you got your tetanus shot (or the last time you got one was from your own pediatrician!), you need to roll up your sleeve and get the Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis). You can get the Tdap vaccine—you just have to ask for it. I know that many adult medical practices do not stock the Tdap vaccine (but I won't get on my soapbox here about why they don't and why they should). If you cannot get it from your doctor, call around to your local pharmacy or grocery store.
In an effort to protect our little patients, my own pediatric practice is now offering Tdap shots for adults. Heck, if Walgreen's can offer it, so can we! I hope other pediatric practices around the country will adopt this practice as well.
Because of the major outbreak, the state of California has expanded its vaccine recommendations beyond the standard vaccination schedule. Californians who are ages 7 and up, those over age 64, and pregnant women should receive a booster shot for whooping cough.
Let's all do what we can to make this the last fatality from whooping cough.