A Preventable Disease

Whooping cough, also known as the “100 day cough” or, more formerly, pertussis, is on the rise. You can do something right now to protect yourself from what sounds to be a really uncomfortable disease, and the youngest ones around you from contracting a disease that could be fatal.

Many of us got a vaccine against pertussis when we were just babies. Since my university health records seem to think I started my immunizations before I was born, I tracked down the “baby book” my mom kept and passed on to me, recording my childhood vaccinations. Under the faded cover showing a baby and a woman, the latter who has some lovely 80s feathered hair, there in Mom’s perfect handwriting were all the dates of my various shots. Seems I got three doses of a vaccine for pertussis (and diphtheria and tetanus) when I was a baby and a booster when I was about 2 years old. Though I got a tetanus and diphtheria booster in 2005 before grad school, that didn’t seem to include pertussis. With all this talk of epidemics and the need for adult vaccinations, why had it been 24 years since mine?

Bordetella pertussis. Total jerk.

First, why is there an epidemic? I can’t pretend to know all of the causes, but what I’ve learned recently is enlightening. Turns out, the “whole cell” form of the vaccine, which we 80s kids were the last to get, doesn’t give you immunity to adulthood, but at least protects you in the years where you are most vulnerable to serious complications from the disease. In 1991, this vaccine was replaced with an “acellular” version with less side effects, but immunity is still not long lasting.

So, adolescents and adults were contracting pertussis, sometimes without knowing it. Since the childhood vaccine is not 100% effective, as no vaccine is, some children were still contracting the disease despite high vaccination rates. In fact, the epidemics seem to come in cycles, or waves, and we’re in a particularly bad one.

But what about babies, pre-vaccination? Read the story of little Peyton Garner and his struggle (in which his was ultimately successful) with pertussis while his mother did all she could. The picture of a little baby on a respirator is just heart-breaking.

Infants are the most vulnerable to complications from pertussis and vulnerable until they complete their vaccination schedule. Pertussis can hide out in adults once their immunity has worn off. So it’s no wonder that it is usually the family members of an infant that transmit the dangerous disease. This time, however, we’re armed with the adult vaccine, or Tdap. This adult form of the pertussis vaccine was not even available until 2005. So only relatively recently have adults even been able to protect themselves, and by extension, the little ones, with a vaccine.

It is important for adolescents and adults that are around babies to get the Tdap vaccine if they haven’t already. But any adult can help in building up the herd immunity. Herd immunity occurs when enough people get a vaccine such that, even though the vaccines are imperfect, the pathogen has nowhere to spread. This protects babies, those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, and those that statistically will not gain immunity even from the vaccine. Here is a great illustration of how that works:

I got my vaccine today. You should look into it yourself. I highly recommend that my fellow UVa students with the school’s insurance plan go for it now rather than wait, as you don’t have to pay for it. If you are going to be at Dragon*Con, there will be a free pertussis vaccine clinic courtesy of the Women Thinking Free Foundation, Skepchick, and Atlanta Skeptics. So my fellow geeks have no excuse as well.

Go ahead. Hug me, I’m vaccinated! And let’s get together and stop pertussis now. As we learned from the sad story of Dana McCaffery who lost her battle with pertussis at just four weeks old, this is a serious matter.

Take THAT, pertussis!

7 comments for “A Preventable Disease

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.