You may have seen a recent Facebook video of a baby with whooping cough (pertussis) struggling to catch his breath, and you may have read the plea from the mom that was posted with the video encouraging people to speak out in favor of vaccines. While that baby’s cough is very bad in the posted video, I want people to know that it gets worse – much worse.
The mom in that video is in a terrible situation – pertussis can be a very serious illness and watching your child go through it is extremely difficult for most parents. Here are some important things to know about whooping cough and pertussis vaccine.
Things You May Not Know About Pertussis
Though people across America catch whooping cough every year, most people’s knowledge of the illness is limited.
- It is a highly contagious respiratory illness that is caused by bacteria. The bacteria attach to the lining of the airways in the upper respiratory system and ultimately lead to inflammation and swelling.
- There are three stages of whooping cough: Stage 1 can last up to two weeks and symptoms are similar to the common cold, including runny nose, mild fever and occasional coughing. People at this stage are highly contagious. Stage 2 is characterized by coughing fits. These can be so severe that they induce vomiting, apnea in babies, exhaustion and even broken ribs from such active coughing in severe cases. This stage typically lasts from one to six weeks, but can last as long as 10 weeks. Stage 3 is characterized by recovery. Coughing will lessen, but the patient is still susceptible to other respiratory infections. This stage usually lasts between two to three weeks.
- Because pertussis starts out with cold-like symptoms, patients may not know they have the infection until they’ve already been spreading it around to those around them for up to two weeks.
- Anyone can get pertussis, but babies and small children are susceptible to the most dangerous side effects, such as apnea, convulsions and encephalopathy (brain disease). This is because their airways are smaller and plug up with less mucuous, and they can't cough hard enough to dislodge the plugs.
- Because the vaccine causes fever and sore muscles, newborns aren’t typically vaccinated until they are about 2 months old – this means that until that time, they are among the population most susceptible to whooping cough. In order to protect them, pregnant moms in their third trimester should be vaccinated.
- Children who will be around the new baby should be vaccinated. Friends and family members who will be close to the baby should be vaccinated. This is called cocooning. Also, there are some people who cannot be vaccinated because of various health reasons. By making sure you and your children are properly vaccinated, you are contributing to the protection of newborns and other children who can’t be vaccinated.
- The pertussis vaccine requires three doses to reach full strength, so make sure your child has received all three doses, starting at the two-month checkup.
It’s Your Right to Ask Questions
It is within your right to have all of the information pertaining to your child’s health. This means that it is OK to ask those in charge of schools and daycare facilities if they know their vaccination rate. It should be over 90 percent, preferably over 95 percent. The number of people who do not vaccinate is known as the rate of declination. While some places like churches might not know what their rate of declination is, your child’s school or daycare will likely know. Typically, the overall rate around Houston is 5 percent, and while that might not seem like a high number, it can have a lot of impact when you consider that people who do not vaccinate tend to cluster in places like churches and schools, some of which have over 20 percent of children who are not up to date on their vaccinations. These children are up 27 times more likely to catch and pass on whooping cough than vaccinated children. Because vaccines are never 100 percent effective, you may want to choose a school or childcare situation where immunization rates are high.
Dr. Melaine Mouzoon, F.A.A.P., is a pediatric hospitalist and managing physician for immunization practices and travel medicine at Kelsey-Seybold. She is an advocate for supporting new moms in achieving successful breastfeeding and in helping new dads become involved in the care and emotional support of their children.