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The Pertussis Outbreak: How Pregnant Women Can Protect Their Babies

Siobhan Dolan Healthy Mom Healthy Baby

By Dr. Siobhan Dolan, author of Healthy Mom, Healthy Baby.

The Centers for Disease Control recently reported some astonishing news: The United States is in the midst of the biggest outbreak of pertussis—also known as whooping cough—in 60 years. Pertussis is a highly contagious respiratory illness that can strike adults and children, but it is especially dangerous to newborns and infants. Pregnant women can protect their babies by making sure that they get their TDAP booster shot.

Pertussis, which is caused by a bacterial infection, causes the windpipe to constrict, resulting in a cough with the illness’s characteristic “whooping” sound. The cough can become so severe that people infected with it are unable to get enough oxygen. In babies and children, this can cause brain damage or death.

Babies and children are especially susceptible to pertussis until they complete a series of vaccines known as DTaP (which stands for Diphtheria, Tetanus and acellular Pertussis). Given routinely to babies and children at approximately 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15 to 18 months, and between 4 and 6 years of age, this vaccination series has protected millions of children from serious illness.

If everyone your baby comes in contact with is fully vaccinated for pertussis, you have little to worry about. But that’s not something you can assume. There are three reasons for this:

The first reason is that immunity from the pertussis vaccine can wane over time, especially if people don’t receive boosters during adolescence or adulthood.

Second, there are growing numbers of parents who are choosing not to have their babies and children vaccinated because of fears that vaccines cause autism. These fears persist even though the connection between vaccination and autism has been scientifically disproven.

Finally, many pregnant women believe—incorrectly—that they cannot receive pertussis vaccinations during pregnancy. It’s true that some vaccines—rubella, for example—should not be given during pregnancy because of theoretical risks to unborn babies. But the pertussis vaccine does not pose significant health risks to mothers or babies. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists agree that the pertussis booster, known as TDAP, can be safely given to women during pregnancy.

The best way to protect your newborn from pertussis is to create a cocoon around him or her—make sure that every adult who comes in contact with your baby has had their TDAP booster shot.  Start by making sure you get your booster—before you become pregnant, after twenty weeks’ gestation, or before you leave the hospital after giving birth. Then make sure that the baby’s siblings, grandparents, family, friends, and childcare providers have gotten their TDAP booster shot, too.

Dr. Siobhan Dolan is the author of Healthy Mom, Healthy Baby: The Ultimate Pregnancy Guide, now available from HarperOne.

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