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The Pertussis Vaccine: Protect Yourself, Protect Your Family

September 4, 2013

Originally published April 24, 2012

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious bacterial illness spread via airborne droplets from the respiratory tract of an infected person. The disease usually starts like the common cold with a runny nose or congestion, sneezing, or mild cough for one to two weeks.  These symptoms are followed by weeks to months of severe coughing spasms. 

Infants and children with the disease cough violently and rapidly, over and over, until the air is gone from their lungs, and they are forced to inhale with a loud gasping or whooping sound. Vomiting and exhaustion commonly follow the coughing episode. Infants may feed poorly, turn blue around the mouth or stop breathing. 
Infants and children do not appear ill between attacks. 

Adolescents and adults may have milder disease than infants and young children, ranging from a mild cough illness to classic pertussis with a persistent cough. A whooping sound after coughing is not common. Adolescents and adults often do not realize they have the disease and unknowingly transmit it to infants who are too young to be vaccinated.

The pertussis vaccination series can begin when an infant is six weeks of age. Infants, however, are not adequately protected by vaccination until the initial series of three shots is complete at six months of age. Therefore, infants less than six months of age are most at risk for severe illness, hospitalization and death. 

Of the 247 cases of pertussis reported to the Department of Public Health in 2010, 67 (27 percent) were in infants less than six months of age. Of these infants, 56 (84 percent) were hospitalized. Tragically, pertussis claimed the life of a three-day old infant in Georgia in 2010.  

The best way for Georgia residents to protect themselves, their families and infants is through vaccination - infants and children should be up to date on their DTaP vaccines and pre-teens, teens, and adults should receive a booster dose of Tdap for protection.  

"Immunity from pertussis vaccine or disease wears off, leaving most adults and adolescents susceptible to pertussis. Infants rely on those adolescent and adults around them to get vaccinated against the disease and not spread the illness," said Steven Mitchell, director of the Immunization Program. "In particular, all family members, especially new mothers and caregivers of infants, should get Tdap to protect themselves and their families"  
In an effort to curtail this vaccine-preventable disease, the Georgia General Assembly passed House Bill 249 during the 2011 Legislative Session.  This bill requires each hospital in the state of Georgia to provide parents of newborns educational information on pertussis disease and the availability of a vaccine to protect against the disease.  This law went into effect July 1, 2011. 

Through collaboration with the Georgia Hospital Association, the Georgia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Georgia Academy of Family Physicians, and the Georgia Obstetrical and Gynecological Society, DPH created English and Spanish educational materials for the public and medical community in support of this legislation.  Electronic versions for duplication are available on the DPH website at www.health.state.ga.us/pertussis.   

"This project is an example of what can be achieved with internal and external collaboration," said Seema Csukas, M.D., interim director of the Maternal and Child Health Program. "Several programs within DPH, as well as our partners in the medical community, worked together to support this legislation and create meaningful tools to protect Georgia families."

What can you do to protect yourself and your family from pertussis?

  • Get Your Pertussis Booster (Tdap)

Everybody in the family should be vaccinated against whooping cough to protect themselves and the baby at home. Children 7 years of age and older can get the new Tdap booster. Parents should ask their child's physician about the Tdap vaccine.

Adults should ask their doctor for the Tdap vaccine to protect themselves against pertussis. Most adults have been vaccinated as children, but immunity wanes.

Women who are planning to become pregnant or currently pregnant can receive Tdap before they become pregnant (ideal), in the late 2nd or 3rd trimester or immediately after giving birth.

  • Make Sure Your Children are Up-to-Date on Their Vaccinations

Children need five shots against pertussis before starting kindergarten.

  • Cover Your Cough and Wash Your Hands

Whooping cough is spread by coughing and sneezing. Remind everyone to cover their mouths when coughing and to wash their hands often.

For more information about the pertussis vaccine, contact immunization@dph.state.ga.us.