Protecting Infants from Whooping Cough

The sight of a newborn baby fills most of us with a strong desire to protect. We swaddle against
the cold. We coo against discomfort. We … vaccinate ourselves against pertussis?


Yes. Whether you’re an expectant mom or a new uncle, it is critical that you stay up-to-date on your Tdap vaccine, which includes a vaccine against pertussis – aka “whooping cough.” School children must also stay current on their vaccines to protect themselves, each other and any tiny new family members from this highly contagious, dangerous and avoidable disease.


Recently, the CDC sounded the alarm about many expectant mothers who were not receiving the recommended Tdap vaccine or flu vaccines, two inoculations that not only protect pregnant women but newborn babies. During pregnancy, antibodies are passed to the developing fetus and protect babies after birth, when they are still too young to be vaccinated. Babies get their first shot of pertussis-containing vaccine at 2 months and can’t be vaccinated against flu until they are 6 months old.


Cases of whooping cough have started cropping up at schools across the country, a signal that too many children and adults likely are not vaccinated against the disease.


Failing to vaccinate against pertussis can be deadly for newborns. Nearly 20 babies every year die of pertussis in the United States, and half of the children under the age of 1 who contract whooping cough end up in the hospital.


The disease is particularly tricky because early symptoms look like a minor cold: runny nose, sneezing, low-grade fever. In fact, the classic “whoop” of whooping cough is only heard in infants, so a long, severe cough in an older child or adult get might get mistaken for something more benign.


To play it safe, keep all sick people away from infants. If someone in your family or close social circle is diagnosed with whooping cough, talk to your baby’s pediatrician about how you can further minimize your baby’s risk.


And if you’re an adult expecting to be around a baby for the holidays, please talk to your doctor to find out if you are current on your Tdap vaccine. Children should have received five DTaPs (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) by the time they are 6 years old and a Tdap at age 11.


As pediatricians, we firmly believe in prevention. It’s our instinct. We hope that the protective instincts of the adults and children who plan to be around a newborn this holiday season will inspire more of them to get vaccinated and keep those babies safe.