Chronic Illness • Sep 17, 2015

Protecting Infants from Whooping Cough: Get this shot during pregnancy

Were you surprised during your pregnancy when your doctor asked you to get a pertussis booster? Well here is why they asked…

Whooping cough in infants is a nasty thing. It is a serious respiratory infection caused by the pertussis bacteria that leads to violent coughing spells that are difficult to stop. Even though you may have never seen anyone with whooping cough, it is out there and it can be very dangerous.

According to the CDC, pertussis infections can cause people to “need to be cared for in the hospital, develop pneumonia (a serious lung infection), have seizures (jerking or twitching of the muscles or staring), or suffer brain damage.” And, unfortunately, whooping cough can be deadly. Here is some more information from the CDC: “From 2000 through 2014, there were 277 deaths from whooping cough reported in the United States. Almost all of the deaths (241 of the 277) were babies younger than 3 months of age, who are too young to be protected against whooping cough by getting the shots.” Here is a link to the full CDC document with great information on whooping cough.

We have had vaccines against the pertussis bacteria since the 1930s. In the 1990s, the vaccination ingredients were changed from “whole cell Pertussis” to “acellular Pertussis”. (Pertussis is the “aP” in DTaP and TDaP vaccines) This cleaner version of the vaccine has fewer side effects, but also produces a weaker immune response. As a result, immunity to pertussis can wane over time. Luckily, booster shots can help to ramp up your immunity again.

So why does this matter to you if you are pregnant? It matters because pertussis is poorly controlled in the US, and there is a chance that your newborn could be exposed to this bacteria – and this exposure is likely to happen inside your home.

According to a recent study in Pediatrics, family members are the most likely source of infection for infants who came down with whooping cough. After reviewing 569 cases of pertussis in infants, researchers found that siblings were the source of infection 36% of the time, compared to 21% for mothers and 10% for fathers. This is a change from years past, when mothers were found to be the most common source of infection. Getting a pertussis booster during pregnancy is the best way to protect your newborn from whooping cough. But you should also make sure everyone else in the household is up-to-date on shots.

It might have seemed strange to be asked to get a shot when you thought you were up-to-date, but it is important to consider. Over time, the protection from pertussis vaccination grows weaker, and giving a boost to your immune system during pregnancy is the best way to protect your new baby. Vaccination during pregnancy is recommended by the CDC, and supported by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American College of Nursing-Midwives. Extra shots are never fun, but it is a small price to pay to help protect your new baby.