The year 1959 was a great one in many ways. Gas was 25 cents a gallon. Barbie debuted on store shelves. Hawaii became the 50th state and our athletes were gearing up for the 1960 winter Olympics to be held in Squaw Valley. Sadly, it was also the year that whooping cough cases reached an all-time record high in this country. In that year, 40,000 cases were reported. But 2012 is quickly becoming a contender to eclipse 1959. The CDC has reported approximately 19,000 cases already this year. This is a serious health risk to anyone not vaccinated against the disease, but in particular to infants, who are the most vulnerable.
Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a bacterial infection that can be deadly for infants and the elderly. Sadly, I have met too many families who have lost a child to this awful disease — some from right here in New England.
Little Brady Alcaide is one such example. At 2 months of age Brady was a happy, healthy baby until he contracted what his mother thought was a common cold. Brady was treated several times by his doctor, yet he was never diagnosed with pertussis. After he exhibited severe breathing difficulty his parents rushed him to the hospital, where he struggled to live for over ten days. As is often the case once pertussis invades, Brady succumbed to the disease.
At two months, a child has yet to be fully vaccinated against pertussis and many other vaccine preventable diseases. Infants rely on “herd immunity,” which means if the greater population is vaccinated against a disease, others in the community won’t contract it. Brady’s parents may never know how their child caught the disease. Everyone in the family tested negative for whooping cough, so likely it was contracted from an adult outside the family who didn’t realize they were carrying the infection. There is no need for families to live with this sort of heartache. Vaccines can prevent this tragedy from happening to another family.
But yet, we are continuing to see an uptick in cases in all 6 New England states and right here in Maine. Maine is one of a handful of states experiencing a serious outbreak of pertussis, with nearly 350 cases so far this year, in every one of the state’s 16 counties. That’s compared with 75 this time last year. A rising number of adults over 40 have been diagnosed with the disease.
The only way to stop the spread of this disease is through vaccinations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all adults attain a booster shot, called Tdap (which contains tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis vaccine). Recent studies show that the vaccine’s effectiveness can wane after time, therefore it is critical that 11- and 12-year-olds also receive a booster shot. Expecting parents should attain a vaccine themselves and stress that all family members and close contacts take the time to receive the Tdap vaccine several weeks prior to the delivery date.
There’s no excuse to delay. Talk to your doctor. Talk to your child’s pediatrician. Ask to check that you’re up to date on all your vaccinations, including the Tdap booster shot.
If you can’t afford to take your child to the doctor, your local health department can provide information on the Vaccines for Children program, which provides vaccines free of charge to eligible children.
Help prevent another tragedy like that of little Brady and help to keep 2012 from being another one for the record books.
Amy Pisani is the executive director of Every Child by Two, a not-for-profit dedicated to protecting all children from vaccine preventable diseases by raising parental awareness of the critical need for timely infant immunizations.