Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Whooping cough, aka pertussis

Washington State is the first in the nation on a rather dubious list: 5% of children in the public education system have not been vaccinated against deadly and preventable illnesses.  That's the highest in the nation.

Well guess what: Washington is experiencing an epidemic of whooping cough.  It's made national news.

Vaccines are not a government conspiracy.  They were developed to save lives.  They don't cause autism.   Do you know who has the highest vaccination compliance rates in the country?  Immigrants. Immigrants from countries where these diseases have not been eradicated and who have seen firsthand the deadly results.

As the mother of an infant who has not yet had his first vaccination against whooping cough, the fact that a preventable disease is running rampant scares the shit out of me.  Whooping cough kills babies.

Whooping cough has hit uncomfortably close to home for me: my 36-year-old, healthy-as-a-horse brother recently recovered from a 2-month bout with whooping cough.

We're not sure when Jason contracted whooping cough, but we know that he got it at work.  His employer doesn't offer health insurance or sick leave (ahhh... the joys of the American health care "system").  Many of his coworkers who do have access to health care were diagnosed and treated with a round of antibiotics.  Jason wasn't so lucky.  He eventually bought some black market antibiotics and treated himself.  The whooping cough cleared up and he was finally able to feel better.

The disease earns its name.  At times Jason coughed so hard and so uncontrollably that he saw stars.  This disease doesn't easily clear up; my brother is one of the healthiest people I know.

While he was sick, our 94-year-old grandmother passed away.  We had lots of notice that she was dying and we all got to say our good-byes... except for my brother.  Because of the compromised health of so many people at the nursing home, he could not visit her.  She held on for 6 days after stopping eating and drinking, perhaps in the hope of seeing him one last time.  But he never came.

I gave birth to a healthy baby boy in December.  Everyone in my family is vaccinated against pertussis... except my brother.  Everyone has been able to spend time and bond with my son... except my brother. 

Jason missed two months of my son's life.  Far worse, he didn't get to have a final goodbye with our grandmother (and let's be honest, he was always her favorite).  All because he wasn't vaccinated.

Right before his symptoms started he visited our grandmother in the hospital and held my son, who was just 6 weeks old at the time. Our story could have had a tragic end instead of just a sad one.

Many adults allow their vaccinations to lapse because they aren't aware that some vaccinations, such as whooping cough (pertussis), diphtheria, and tetanus wear off with time.  You need to re-up these vaccinations every 8-10 years and they're bundled in a single shot.  I got a tetanus shot about 3 years ago when I sliced my finger open on a food processor blade.  Frankly, the shot hurt worse than the cut (until it got infected), but it was worthwhile.

There are some diseases for which you probably can rely on herd immunity in the USA, such as polio.  I don't care what your beliefs about vaccinations are: when it comes to the public health good, you cannot rely on herd immunity with whooping cough.  It's out there and it kills.

There is no reason you should not get vaccinated.  Just do it.

UPDATED: A friend posted this on her fb page.  It's a must-read for new parents and parents-to-be, with suggestions on how to protect your newborn from pertussis.


  1. Your story is a good example showing why we need universal health care!

    One of the biggest irks in our household is people who are against vaccination. Island County has one of the highest rates of whooping cough infection in the US, and it can be traced directly to the south ender "hippies" who don't want to vaccinate their kids. Supposedly well-educated people making poor decisions. Unfortunate. And even more offensive is the fact people like your brother don't have ready access to vaccinations. Grrrrrr

  2. to bad your brother in law has no insurance maybe he should pay for it like the rest of us have to rather than spread whooping cough

  3. To Moses Lilly: I did encourage my brother to contact the local health department so that he could be officially diagnosed and treated. I'll make no excuses for him that he didn't do it and shrugged off all my attempts to help him. I did what I could to prevent his spreading it by keeping my son away from him and being current on my own vaccinations. I wish he did have health insurance or the funds to pay for health care out-of-pocket. More than that, I wish he'd been vaccinated.

  4. I have whooping cough! Three weeks and counting. I thought I was vaccinated, but apparently 5 years ago when I updated my tetanus, I received the Td instead of the DTaP! This is very frustrating, because I'm a school nurse and am always encouraging people to get their vaccinations! So I KNOW how important it is and can't believe I ended up unprotected!!

    One problem I have as a school nurse is that our district doesn't make anyone stay home if they're not immunized -- they make the nurses do all the work of contacting people and keeping the records, but they don't back us up -- so we have a high number of unvaccinated children and it's getting worse. Now here I am on summer break after a very stressful and busy school year, and I'm going to be sick for most of it! I have asthma, so the symptoms are especilly severe. I have no quality of life right now because of the coughing and choking -- I can't even talk because the severe coughing caused me to lose my voice. So please, please, please double check your immunizations! This is not something you want to experience!!

  5. Oh dear. I hope that you're back on the road to recovery soon. How awful.