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Topics > Healthy Outlook > More Than Just A Cough, Pertussis Can Be Fatal

More Than Just A Cough, Pertussis Can Be Fatal

Published by Contra Costa Times
Posted on Sun, May. 30, 2004

STRANGE NAME, "Whooping Cough." Kids get shots for it, but few of us have seen a child with whooping cough, much less had it ourselves, as far as we know. It seems like a disease from the past, like polio.

If only that were true.

In the past three years, California has seen an unusually high number of whooping cough cases. Not all cases are severe, but many are. More than one-third occurred in infants less than 3 months old. Eighty percent of these infants were so sick they needed hospitalization.

One case I witnessed was heartbreaking. The baby had been admitted to the hospital, coughing incessantly, gasping for air, with saliva dripping from his mouth. An awful, unnatural wheezing sound came from his chest. He had a horrible, dangerous illness that no child should suffer from.

The season for whooping cough, also known as "pertussis," usually begins in April, but continues through the summer, with cases peaking in July and August and dropping off in the fall.

Complications include vomiting, pneumonia, seizures, brain damage and, in a few cases, death. The disease causes violent coughing spasms that can last several minutes and persist for months, making it very difficult for an infant to eat, drink and breathe. The familiar "whoop" that gives the disease its name is the awful sound of a toddler or child fighting to breathe when coughing. Very young children and infants may not "whoop" but tend to cough spasmodically, gasping for air.

Fortunately, you can keep your child from getting whooping cough with the common childhood vaccine DTaP. The first injection should be given at 2 months of age, followed by three additional injections by the time your child is 18 months old.

Newborns are particularly vulnerable to whooping cough, so it's important not to delay the first shot. The disease is highly contagious, spread person-to-person by coughing, sneezing or other close contact.

The vaccine has been accused of causing a variety of problems, including seizures, ADHD and autism. But repeated studies by some of the largest health institutions in the country have produced no evidence of serious complications from this vaccine.

The childhood vaccine can wear off by adolescence, so teenagers and adults can get whooping cough. It's seldom serious in adults, though, and is often mistaken for a bad cold or bronchitis. There is no vaccine for adults, and since it's quite contagious, it's virtually impossible to prevent whooping cough from infecting unvaccinated infants and children.

That's why the federal Centers for Disease Control encourages parents to make sure their kids' immunizations are up to date and to take their kids' immunization records to every appointment.Protect your children from anyone who is coughing, and encourage people who are coughing to cover their mouths and wash their hands frequently.

Prevention is the best way to stop whooping cough and many other dangerous childhood diseases. Immunize your children on time, and encourage others to do the same.

Dale Jenssen is Contra Costa Health Services' Immunization Coalition Coordinator.

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