Pertussis -- commonly known as whooping cough -- is on the rise again in the United States. In the first few months of 2010, doctors have reported nearly twice as many pertussis cases in California as they did during the same period last year. If you do a Google news search for "whooping cough," you'll find an alarming number of county and state health departments are sounding the alarm about pertussis.
So what is pertussis? According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
The disease starts like the common cold, with runny nose or congestion, sneezing, and maybe mild cough or fever. But after 1–2 weeks, severe coughing begins. Children with the disease cough violently and rapidly, over and over, until the air is gone from their lungs and they're forced to inhale with a loud "whooping" sound.
Other facts about pertussis from the CDC:
- More than half of infants under age one who contract pertussis require hospitalization.
- One in 10 children who get pertussis also develop pneumonia.
- One in 50 children with pertussis have convulsions.
In some cases, pertussis is deadly. The CDC reports that 18 people died in the U.S. as a result of the disease in 2008, and already two babies have died from pertussis in California this year. In Orange County in the first 20 weeks of this year, there were more than six times as many cases as the same period last year.
Adults can also get pertussis. How do I know this? I've managed to get it twice -— including this May; I'm on antibiotics for it right now. I've been coughing for a month. It's nothing to mess around with, I assure you —- especially where children are concerned.
If you want to see how bad pertussis is in children, check out this video of babies and young children coughing and gasping for breath at PalMD; the video is disturbing, particularly the final example, an unvaccinated eight-month-old who has been hospitalized with pertussis. For a mother's perspective on having two teens with pertussis, check out Jan Gambino's post.
It's also highly contagious. If you get pertussis, each member of your household lacking an up-to-date pertussis vaccination has a 90-percent chance of getting it, too.
So ... How do we prevent pertussis?
Simple: Vaccination. States with lax vaccination laws tend to have much higher rates of pertussis.
Let me make this very clear: If you vaccinate your baby, he won't get pertussis and die. If you vaccinate your child, she won't get pertussis and end up hospitalized.
According to the CDC, children should be vaccinated against pertussis at two, four, and six months of age; once between 15 and 18 months of age; and when a child enters school at four to six years of age. Boosters are available for adolescents and adults. The CDC web page on pertussis explains:
Before 2005, the only booster available contained tetanus and diphtheria (called Td), and was recommended for adolescents and adults every 10 years. Today there are boosters for adolescents and adults that contain tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (called Tdap). Preteens going to the doctor for their regular check-up at age 11 or 12 years should get a dose of Tdap. Adults who didn't get Tdap as a pre-teen or teen should get one dose of Tdap instead of the Td booster. Most pregnant women who were not previously vaccinated with Tdap should get one dose of Tdap before leaving the hospital or birthing center. Getting vaccinated with Tdap is especially important for families with new infants.
It's not just pertussis that's back: The Los Angeles Times reported last week that there are cases of mumps on the East Coast, and measles are popping up as well.
These are diseases that, thanks to vaccination programs, had become highly uncommon the United States by the end of the 20th century. And yet here we are in the 21st century with measles, mumps, and pertussis because we've begun to lack herd immunity. (Click that link to read Janet Stemwedel's excellent blog post explaining herd immunity, the concept of "free riders," and her argument that people who don't get vaccinated need to accept responsibility for their decisions and possibly leave the herd.)
Contact your doctor or your local health clinic for more information on pertussis vaccinations.
Leslie Madsen-Brooks (hack, cough) is a teaching consultant who (cough) is not happy that she let her pertussis vaccine lapse, but is relieved that her four-year-old son's shots are up to date. She blogs at The Clutter Museum.
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