Melissa Arca: Whooping cough a growing risk among preteens

03/21/2013 12:00 AM

03/21/2013 8:04 AM

Whooping cough (a.k.a. pertussis) is a respiratory infection caused by a very contagious bacterium, B. pertussis. It starts out looking like the common cold but after a week or two turns into a terrible cough that causes coughing fits and difficulty catching your breath, and can significantly interfere with your daily life (i.e. missed days from work and school).

In infants, this illness can cause apnea, failure to thrive, pneumonia, respiratory failure, seizures and sometimes death. It truly is a terrible disease and one that has thankfully been targeted for prevention through an effective vaccine, the DTaP, that is routinely given at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15-18 months and again at 4-6 years old.

However, the current makeup of our vaccine (the acellular type), which causes fewer local side effects than its predecessor, wanes over time. A new study released in the Journal of Pediatrics confirmed that immunity to whooping cough diminishes a few years after children receive their fifth dose of DTaP (the 4-to-6-year-old shot).

What this means is that 7- to 10-year-olds are becoming increasingly susceptible to this disease. Nevada County recently had an outbreak among school-age children, reporting 12 confirmed cases. This could mean that the whooping cough booster (TdaP) may soon be recommended at an earlier age than what it is now.

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that all children 11 and older receive a booster, along with pregnant women (for each pregnancy) and any person who lives with or cares for a newborn. It's really those newborn infants that we worry about most, since half of all infants who get whooping cough are hospitalized with an infection, and four out of five infants with whooping cough caught it from someone who lives in their home.

In 2012, 18 deaths were attributed to whooping cough and the majority of those deaths were in infants younger than 3 months. It is imperative to create a circle of protection around our babies. If you've ever seen a child (even an adult for that matter) with whooping cough, and I have, then you know how terrible a disease it is. The coughing fits are violent and relentless. They can cause rib fractures in adults; just imagine what they do to a tiny baby. And unfortunately, there is no cure for whooping cough once you get it.

Antibiotics are given in hopes of decreasing the severity and length of illness and to decrease the rate of transmission, but it does not stop the coughing fits or prevent potential complications such as pneumonia. The antibiotics work best when given early in the disease when it looks more like a cold than anything else, so diagnosing it in a timely manner is a challenge, to say the least.

Whooping cough is aptly named, because it is exactly that: a whoop of a cough that just won't go away (think months). So create that circle of protection around the most vulnerable (our babies) by making sure your children receive their DTaP vaccines on time, your adolescent child gets a booster (California schools now require it for enrollment in seventh grade), and get your own booster if it's been a few years, you are pregnant, and/or you live with a newborn.

Dr. Melissa Arca is a mother of two. Her blog,, is featured on The Bee's blog and community news network,


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