Whooping Cough Outbreak: How to Protect Your Family

Now that concerns over the H1N1 virus have faded, there's a new health threat out there for parents to be aware of: A current epidemic of whooping cough is sweeping through California and South Carolina, resulting in at least six infant deaths so far -- the worst outbreak of whooping cough in 50 years.

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a highly contagious respiratory disease that starts out like a cold. While most adults who get it simply have a very bad cough, the coughing fits can prevent young kids from catching their breath and they wheeze or "whoop" when they're finally able to inhale. (Children who die from pertussis actually suffocate from the coughing.)

Officials in both states can't pinpoint the reason for the jump in cases, but some possiblities include a more accurate test for the disease, improved reporting, better education of primary-care physicians about the disease, the waning effectiveness of vaccines given years ago, and a growing number of children who aren't vaccinated against the disease.

The current outbreak is particularly dangerous for newborns. "Pre-vaccinated children under 6 months old are the most vulnerable to the disease because of both age -- the younger the child, the higher the mortality and the chance of cerebral hemorrhage  -- and uncompleted, or not yet begun, primary vaccine series,” says Dr. Anatoly Belilovsky, a board-certified pediatrician in New York. The pertussis vaccine (part of the "DTaP" vaccine that also protects against tetanus and diphtheria) cannot be given until the child is 2 months old, and babies aren't fully immune until they receive several additional doses -- around the time they're 6 months old.

To protect your family against the whooping cough:

  • Check your immunization records. If anyone in your family hasn't had the DTaP or Tdap vaccine in the past five years, it might be time for a booster, since "the immunity given by the vaccination fades over time," says Dr. Belilovsky. Check with your doctor.
  • If you're pregnant, get family members vaccinated now to give them time to build up the immunity. Anyone who will be around the baby should have been immunized within the past five to 10 years. While the CDC says the Tdap vaccine is safe during pregnancy -- and recommends it if you live in an area with a current outbreak -- you can also wait and receive the vaccine at the hospital immediately after you give birth.
  • Minimize outings for very young infants. If you're in an area with a confirmed outbreak, try to keep newborns at home until they've started receiving their DTaP vaccines.
  • See a doctor quickly if your baby develops a cough -- even a mild one. "The initial presentation of pertussis is a week of mild coughing," Dr. Belilovsky says. "It’s impossible to diagnose pertussis during this time with any degree of reliability, but this time is the only chance to abort the infection with antibiotics. When the diagnosis is possible, it is too late to treat." Dr. Belilovsky tends to treat anyone who might have been exposed to whooping cough with antibiotics, and your doctor may choose to do the same for your baby if you're in an area where there's an active outbreak.

Where do you stand on vaccinations for kids? Chime in below!

Like This? Read These:
The Truth About Vaccines and Autism
Vaccination Decisions for Parents
When Not to Vaccinate

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