Last week a one month old baby died in Travis County after being diagnosed with Pertussis (Whooping Cough). The infant was too young to receive immunizations, which start at 2 months of age, and the diagnosis was delayed because of the non-specific symptoms characteristic of the first stages of the disease.

[WATCH] Keye News came by my office to interview me about the safety of vaccines. 

Whooping cough, or Pertussis, is a very contagious disease that can be passed from person to person by small droplets while coughing or sneezing. Unfortunately, we always review symptoms and preventive advice when facing a terrible outcome, but we often forget the experience as fast. These are times of pointing fingers and asking for who is responsible, and everybody understands the pain of the parents and the despair of the community. The infant’s parents and grandparents spoke out about the importance of vaccination, hoping that the death of their baby would serve to educate others and prevent further cases.

Over the last few years we have witnessed and increase in Pertussis cases in Texas. As of October 2013 the number is up to 2,652. The number of cases during 2012 doubled the number of cases in 2011. It is of no surprise we are now facing the negative complications of this disease which can cause complications such as pneumonia, seizures and apnea. About 1 % of those affected die.

The virulence of a germ and its capacity to cause negative outcomes depends on two main factors: how aggressive the germ is and how long it can cause only mild symptoms that can go undetected while spreading to a larger number of individuals. Take the common cold for example; it causes mild symptoms and most of us continue our daily life while spreading the virus to family, friends and co-workers. Fortunately the symptoms remain mild and, for the most part, complications are rare in healthy individuals. The behavior of the virus allows for fast transmission but it lacks the aggressiveness required to be a big concern. But other germs have both: they go undetected, they pass from person to person and, at the end, they are capable of severe complications in a larger number of patients. Pertussis falls into this category.

What can we do to fight Pertussis?

We can get as many people as possible vaccinated. Bordetella Pertussis, the germ that causes Whooping Cough, won’t have suitable hosts and the spread would stop every time it tries to infect a vaccinated individual. The chances of an unvaccinated baby coming into contact with Whooping Cough and developing the disease would be diminished if there are no susceptible hosts to pass it to the baby in the first place. Babies and children should receive 5 doses of Whooping Cough vaccine by the time they enter school. Pre-teens and adults should receive a booster of the Tetanus-Whooping Cough combination. It is important for pregnant woman to be vaccinated; also parents, grandparents and caregivers of infants.

We always say vaccines protect the individual and the community. I hope the lessons from this unfortunate case illustrate why.

About the Author

Dr. Katalenas

Dr. Katalenas is a pediatrician and owner of The Pediatric Center of Round Rock and the author of the book "The Step Up Diet: From Scratch… The Quality, Quantity, and Timing Solution to Childhood Obesity", a guide to healthy cooking and eating for busy families.