Why You Need a Whooping Cough Vaccine

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, was close to eradication in the 1970s, thanks to the whooping cough vaccine.

But in the past few years, we’ve seen several worrisome outbreaks of this bacterial illness, which can bring uncontrollable coughing fits so severe that they may cause vomiting, obstruct breathing, and even crack ribs.

The illness, which is easily spread through a cough or sneeze, can even be deadly for some people, but especially infants—who don’t receive their first whooping cough vaccination until they are 2 months old.

Here’s what you need to know about how to protect yourself and those around you from whooping cough:

Why Whooping Cough Has Returned

In the mid-1970s the number of cases in the U.S. fell to a low of 1,010 per year. But it has been on the rise in recent years: More than 18,000 cases of whooping cough were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2015—a drop from the 60-year high of 48,277 in 2012 but still an alarming number, according to public health experts.  

A review of 32 studies on whooping cough, published in March 2016 in the journal JAMA, suggests that one contributing factor is parents who choose not to have their youngsters vaccinated.

But, the researchers noted, because increases in whooping cough were also seen in groups with high rates of whooping cough vaccinations, other factors are probably also in the mix, such as falling vaccine effectiveness over time.  

Who Needs Protection Most

You can contract whooping cough at any age, and though the cough may last for about three months, most people get through the illness without lasting effects.

Whooping cough can be quite dangerous, though, for infants, who can’t get their first vaccination until they reach 2 months (see “When to Get the Whooping Cough Vaccine,” below, for specifics).

Young babies not only have less robust protection against whooping cough than older children and most adults but are also more likely to experience potentially serious complications such as pneumonia and convulsions.

Babies with whooping cough often don’t cough at all,” explains Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., chief medical adviser for Consumer Reports. “Instead, the disease causes them to stop breathing and turn blue.”

According to the CDC, about one out of four babies who contract whooping cough develop pneumonia, and one or two out of every 100 will die.  

And because not everyone has visible symptoms when ill with whooping cough, parents, grandparents, and caregivers may pass the illness on to babies unknowingly. “Some people may have a mild form of the disease and not even know it, and they can transmit it to a baby through a cough or sneeze, or even by blowing a kiss,” Lipman says.

Experts say babies usually catch whooping cough from relatives. “The source is family members because they get it and bring it to the infant,” says William Schaffner, M.D., professor of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

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