On a recent hike in the Smoky Mountains I chanced upon the remains of a turn-of-the-century community. Romantic images of a simpler time crumbled as I wandered through a cemetery. Most of the small, crude, poignant headstones were for infants and children. I was reminded that at that time, one in ten infants died before turning one.
A significant cause of death was whooping cough, or pertussis. This disease kills a few ways. Some individuals suffocate from airway inflammation. Infants can become so short of breath they are unable to feed and die of starvation. Secondary pneumonia (no antibiotics then) was also a common, miserable cause of death. Infectivity of this bug was (and is) quite high, often affecting entire families.
The cures these desperate souls pursued seem outlandish. They ranged from the benign – walking around with cloves of garlic in your socks – to the frightening – being lowered into a coal mine or inhaling cresolene made from coal tar. How about drinking nitric acid? None of these cured the illness or relieved the cough, of course. In fact, we still don’t have an effective treatment for the cough associated with pertussis.
But there is a vaccine to prevent the illness.
Six infants recently died in California of pertussis. Infants remain at special risk for the disease. Until they’re done with the whole series (of five) pertussis shots, their safety depends on “herd immunity”. The more people in a community (or “herd”) are vaccinated, the lower the prevalence of the disease and the lower the risk of contracting it.
Pertussis immunity wanes over time creating a reservoir of whoop, if you will, starting in the teen years. Combine that with a growing number of herd members who skip or delay vaccines and you have a recipe for disaster.
The CDC now recommends that everybody-you, me, your roommate, and your professor-get a booster. It’s even packaged with tetanus, so you can kill two birds with one stone. Give us a call or come in and see us if you have questions about tetanus or pertussis – especially if you work with infants.
Jo Hanna Friend D’Epiro, PA-C, MPH
Student Health Services
The Ohio State University