Polio. Scarlet fever. Typhoid. Today, this list does little more than conjure up old memories of iron lungs, crutches and maybe one sad velveteen rabbit. But less than a century ago, these words were enough to make most parents go white with dread.
Thanks to advancements in medicine and vaccination, these diseases have been all but eradicated. But as powerful as modern medicine has become, there are still holes in its defenses, as proven by a recent Californian outbreak of pertussis, also known as whooping cough, that is well on its way to being the most widespread outbreak the state has seen in 50 years. So far over 900 cases of pertussis have been confirmed, with a death toll of at least five, prompting state health officials to declare it an epidemic.
The sheer volume of whooping cough cases has many parents worried and wondering how a commonly contained disease like pertussis could experience such a powerful revival.
“Studies show children who aren’t vaccinated against whooping cough are at a much higher risk of getting and spreading it,” says Courtney Gidengil, MD, MPH, from the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital Boston. “There’s the idea that parents who aren’t vaccinating their kids are putting others at risk, which could be the case in California.”
But those who willfully avoid vaccination aren’t the only potential spreaders of the disease, nor are they the only potential victims. The largest and most vulnerable population for diseases typically immunized against is newborns under 2 months of age. Because their new immune systems are not yet ready for vaccinations, every child in America spends their first eight weeks of life unprotected from diseases like pertussis.
To protect babies not old enough for a pertussis vaccination, Gidengil suggests that new parents, siblings, grandparents and anyone else who will be in close contact with an infant all get a dosage of re-vaccinations to ensure they don’t spread potentially lethal germs to the baby, a process the medical world calls cocooning.
“It’s called cocooning because it’s like surrounding the infant with a cocoon of protected people,” says Gidengil. “Children younger than 2 months are most likely to die or have major problems following infection with whooping cough. They can have severe repertory problems, seizure, apnea or they can be sick for weeks. Cocooning helps protect them.”
New or expectant parents interested in cocooning should ask their physicians about receiving a Tdap shot – (tetanus, diphtheria, acelluar pertussis), and can suggest their immediate family and people who will be in contact with the baby do the same. For information on Tdaps for siblings under the age of 11, speak to your child’s pediatrician.
“Immunity for most things wanes over time, and for most diseases that’s not a problem, but for a disease like pertussis it can be very serious,” says Gidengil. “Most cases of diseases in children can be linked to exposure from a mother or father. A Tdap not only prevents adults from getting sick with whooping cough and missing work, but also makes sure they don’t pass the disease on to younger children who are far more likely to die or suffer severe symptoms associated with it.”