Why all the Pertussis?

By now I’m sure you have heard that pertussis (whooping cough) has reached concerning levels in the Kansas City area. The United States will see the most pertussis cases in a half century. Already NINE people have died from this preventable, treatable disease. Heartbreaking…yet inspiring.

Parents want to know: if there is an immunization, why all the pertussis?

GREAT QUESTION! I love when parents are active participants in healthcare. Inquisitive questions like that signal a quest for knowledge…to understand. When we understand, we can educate. When we educate, seemingly big problems become much more manageable.

Here are my thoughts on why we are seeing a major outbreak of pertussis (in no particular order):

Pertussis is part of an immunization called DTaP, which stands for diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular pertussis. With that one immunization, a child is protected from three illnesses. A child will receive this immunization at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15-18 months, and again at 5 years. For more information on the DTaP immunization, please visit here.

1. No immunization in 100% effective.  No respectable medical professional will tell you otherwise. Immunizations are overwhelmingly safe and effective: they are the single most successful public health discovery. But, they don’t always work. That is just a fact. According to the CDC, most childhood immunizations are effective 85%-95% of the time. So, even though your child may have received all boosters of his/her pertussis immunization, (s)he may be not be fully protected. Which is why herd immunity is so important. And that leads to the second reason why there is a major outbreak.

2. Too many people are refusing immunizations. The herd is real and it is vitally important to the success of immunizations. Because no immunization is 100% effective, plus the fact that some people CAN’T receive immunizations, 85%-95% of the population needs to be immunized to protect all of us. When too many people fail to immunize their children against preventable diseases, those viruses and bacteria are able to break through growing holes in the herd and cause worse and worse outbreaks. That is definitely what we are seeing now with pertussis. But, it has also happened with measles and mumps.

3. Adults are not adequately immunized against pertussis. When was the last time you received an immunization with a pertussis component in it? I would venture a guess for most of you reading this, it was when you were a child. But, there is good news. There is a new immunization that you can receive to boost your protection against this illness: Tdap. Call your doctor ASAP to get this immunization…especially if you are going to around a newborn/infant – we need to form a cocoon around those babies to protect them! And that goes for you PREGNANT moms! You should be immunized in your 2nd or early 3rd trimester to build up enough immunity to best protect your baby.

4. The new version of the pertussis immunization is not as effective as the old version. Without getting too technical, the early versions of the pertussis immunization utilized whole bacterial cells when formulating the suspensions (DTP). While the immunization was highly effective, it unfortunately caused expected, but severe side effects. In the late 1990s, versions of the immunization using limited antigen numbers and no part of the cell (i.e. acellular) were licensed (DTaP). While these formulations are effective (and definitely cause less side effects), they are not as effective as the previous version of the immunization*.

*Special thanks to Dr. Paul Offit of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for this information.

5. Pertussis is often misdiagnosed. Pertussis is called whooping cough because it can produce a typical “whoop” sound. However, it doesn’t have to. Pertussis often times has non-specific symptoms in a baby – like a cold. In adults, pertussis can be misdiagnosed as asthma or bronchitis or sinusitis or allergies. If pertussis is misdiagnosed, it is mistreated. If it is mistreated, the likelihood of spread increases and the outbreak persists.

So, what can you do to help stop the spread of pertussis?

1. Continue to educate yourself - Know the signs and symptoms of pertussis.

CDC - General informaton on pertussis
Healthy Children - Pediatric information on pertussis.
Utah Bureau of Epidemiology - What pertussis can sound like.

2. Get immunized - Priority Care Pediatrics, LLC, is proud to offer the Tdap immunization to adults.

3. Get your child(ren) immunized – Completely and on time! Immunization is still the best preventive weapon against this illness.

4. Cover your cough - If you are sick, avoid contact with the most susceptible, especially newborns.

5. If you think you have pertussis – see your doctor ASAP. As always, this post cannot, and is not intended to, replace a visit to your doctor. Your doctor needs to complete a full history and physical to accurately diagnose and treat you!

This post is not meant to be a complete scientific explanation on the effectiveness and safety of immunizations. For more information on immunizations, please visit www.immunize.org.

One thought on “Why all the Pertussis?

  1. Pingback: We have a whooping cough vaccine. So why is there a whooping cough outbreak?

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