By Ruben J. Rucoba, MD
Most of you reading this are already parents. But if you are planning to have another child or know someone who is, then you should know that there is something parents of newborns can do to protect their babies: get vaccinated against whooping cough and influenza.
Whooping cough, or pertussis, can afflict anyone, regardless of age. For most older children, teens, and adults, pertussis is a nagging, bothersome cough that lasts for weeks or months. It can be treated, but only if treated very early in the course, which usually doesn’t happen, as most people in these age groups don’t go to the doctor immediately when they have a cough. If untreated, pertussis will ultimately go away, but it may take a long time.
But while the person is coughing, he or she can spread pertussis to others. Very young infants are particularly at risk, as pertussis vaccination cannot be started until 6 weeks of age at the earliest, and the initial series usually is not completed until 6 months of age. And when newborns get pertussis, they can have apnea (periods where they stop breathing) and may even die.
In 2012, there were 48,277 cases of pertussis reported in the United States, the most since 1955. That year, there were 20 pertussis-related deaths, with the majority in infants younger than 3 years old.
Infants get pertussis from siblings and adults who have not been immunized or, more commonly, who were immunized but whose immunity has waned. Even if you had a case of whooping cough in the past, your immunity is not life-long, and you can get it again. Therefore, all those adults who have close contact with newborns (parents, grandparents, daycare workers or nannies, etc.) should get a booster dose of pertussis in the form of a Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) shot. This is known as “cocooning.”
A recent article in Pediatrics reported that during a recent pertussis outbreak in Australia, when both parents were immunized, the risk of pertussis in infants less than 4 months old was reduced by 51%. So “cocooning” works.
Likewise, with flu season just around the corner, it’s important to remember that influenza shots can be given only to those who are 6 months or older. Infants are particularly at risk for complications from the flu, and are more likely to be hospitalized than older children or adults. One way to protect infants from the flu is to give a flu vaccine to everyone around them, including the adults.
So make sure that if you have or are around a newborn baby, get your pertussis booster and a flu shot.
Dr. Ruben J. Rucoba is a general pediatrician in Wheaton, Illinois. A member of the medical staff at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Central DuPage Hospital, he is especially interested in the care of special needs children. Dr. Rucoba is also a medical writer and the father of four children.