Whooping cough, or pertussis, has made the news for months now, most recently as it took the life of another baby in California. The state has had more than 7,800 confirmed and probable cases (and likely many more unconfirmed). Tragically, 10 California infants have now died. All of the babies were under 3 months of age, and nine of the 10 babies were under 8 weeks -- which means they were too young to be vaccinated to protect against the infection.
California is not the only state seeing a rise in whooping cough. It's occurring all over the country. My hometown of Austin, Texas, has reported several cases recently, and Texas is second only to California in reported cases. Believe me, I am seeing plenty of kids in my office who have been exposed to a child with confirmed whooping cough. Parents are concerned, with good reason, 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 percent of children were vaccinated, but it's not that simple a solution. Infectious diseases are much more complex. Here are some important facts about whooping cough:
1. Whooping cough epidemics occur in cycles and tend to peak roughly about every three to five 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 -- even if you are vaccinated for protection or you had the disease before. Immunity wears off over time (listen up, adolescents and adults!). That's why it is so important to get the whooping cough booster vaccine, called Tdap (for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis).
3. Babies cannot receive their first vaccination for whooping cough until they are 2 months old. Even then, they do not have adequate immunity until they have received at least three doses of whooping cough vaccine DTap (at 6 months). 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 contracted from their moms).
4. Adults often don't know they have the illness. It may look like a common cold at the beginning of the infection; then it becomes a cough that just lingers (whooping cough is also known as the "100 Day Cough"). People are contagious up to about two weeks after the cough begins.