By Teresa Foo, MD, MPH
Divisions of Immunization and Acute Disease Epidemiology
Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a very contagious disease that can cause serious illness and death, especially in newborns and young infants who are not fully vaccinated. Whooping cough is often thought of as a disease of the past. While we no longer see the number of cases we did in the United States before whooping cough vaccines were available, it is a growing health concern.
Whooping cough can be serious for anyone, but it is life-threatening in newborns and young babies. Up to 20 babies die each year in the United States due to whooping cough. About half of babies younger than 1 year old who get whooping cough need treatment in the hospital. The younger the baby is when he gets whooping cough, the more likely he will need to be treated in a hospital. It is important to know that many babies with whooping cough don’t cough at all. Instead it can cause them to stop breathing and turn blue.
Whooping cough vaccines are the safest and most effective way to prevent this disease. The whooping cough vaccine for children (2 months through 6 years) is called DTaP. The vaccine that provides protection for adolescents and adults is called Tdap. Both of these vaccines provide protection against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough).
There are three ways you can protect your baby from whooping cough.
First, pregnant women should get the Tdap vaccine during each pregnancy, preferably between the 27th and 36th week. This allows the mother to give her newborn the greatest number of protective antibodies and the best possible protection against whooping cough.
Second, make sure everyone who is around your baby is up to date with their whooping cough vaccines. When a baby’s family members and caregivers get a whooping cough vaccine, they help protect their own health while forming a protective circle of immunity around the baby. Many babies who get whooping cough catch it from siblings, parents or other caregivers who might not even know they have the disease.
Third, make sure your baby gets his or her vaccines on time. Your baby will need several doses of DTaP vaccine for the best protection. The first dose is recommended at age 2 months. Your baby will need two more doses after that, given at 4 months and 6 months, to build up high levels of protection, and then booster shots at 15 through 18 months and at 4 through 6 years to maintain that protection.
Talk to your doctor about what vaccines you or your baby need. For more information on protecting your baby from whooping cough, go to www.cdc.gov/pertussis/pregnant/mom/index.html