A watchful eye on an old danger

. October 11, 2012.

Parents have new reason to fear an old childhood menace, as whooping cough has made a disturbing resurgence in recent years. The illness, medically known as pertussis, is far from the scourge it once was, at least in the developed world. Vaccines and antibiotics developed in the twentieth century made a formerly deadly threat both treatable and largely preventable. But both Ohio and Michigan report an increase in whooping cough cases as compared to a year ago.

Reasons for the troubling trend are unclear. Some children never receive the proper vaccinations, or don’t get the periodic boosters required to keep the vaccines at full effectiveness.

Pertussis is a bacterial infection that attacks the respiratory system, causing the distinctive cough that gives the sickness its common name. And while the illness is readily treatable, young children, especially those who haven’t been fully vaccinated, are at more risk for complications.

“Parents should know it’s very serious disease in children under six months,” says Findlay pediatrician Dr. Andrew Ritz. “And the person most likely to give [infants] pertussis is someone they live with.” New mothers are now being given the vaccine before leaving the hospital, in order to create what Ritz calls a “cocoon of safety” around the newborn. 

Parents should be sure that their children are properly vaccinated—but while vaccines can drastically reduce the risk of infection, it can never entirely eliminate it. Communication with other parents and teachers is crucial to preventing outbreaks. If you have reason to believe your child has been exposed, see your pediatrician. It can still be possible to prevent full-blown infection with prompt antibiotic treatment. Both adolescents and adults should be sure to receive the recommended boosters, ideally between 11 and 12 years of age, and at least once after 18. Above all, it’s crucial to know
the facts.