Whooping Cough Epidemic Poses Greatest Risk to Infants

Kellie Flood-Shaffer, MD

Contributed by Kellie Flood-Shaffer, MD, FACOG

Last year, the number of reported whooping cough cases was at its highest level in more than 50 years. Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a highly contagious respiratory infection that results in severe coughing spells that sometimes end in a “whooping” sound. While the disease is often not that serious for older children and adults — many have whooping cough and don’t even know it — babies can develop severe and potentially life-threatening complications from this disease.

Pregnant women should get whooping cough vaccine

Babies don’t get their first pertussis vaccine until they are two months old and aren’t fully protected until after their third shot at six months of age. In most instances, babies catch whooping cough from their mothers or other people close to them. That’s why the CDC is now recommending that all moms-to-be get the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTaP) vaccination between the 27th and 36th week of their pregnancy. It’s also a good idea for the baby’s father and other adult caretakers get a DTaP booster.

Whooping cough vaccine serves two purposes

Of course, pregnant women get the whooping cough vaccine so that they don’t contract the disease and pass it on to their baby. But did you know that some immune cells can also be passed to the baby through the placenta? It’s true. A woman vaccinated with DTaP during pregnancy passes on maternal pertussis antibodies to her baby, which may provide protection against pertussis in early life — before the infant begins the primary DTaP series.

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