Whoop, There It Is

This image depicts a young boy who presented t...

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It’s strange how some diseases struggle to make a comeback. When we Baby Boomer’s were infants, a little known bug caused serious respiratory infections and distress. The disease, Whooping Cough, caused by a bacterium now known as Bordetella pertussis, resulted in fever, generalized lethargy and severe coughing. As the cough persisted, it came in staccatic bursts, known as paroxysms, causing prolonged coughing where the infant literally had to gasp for air (hence the whoop).  If antibiotics were started early the symptoms were less severe and prevented prolonged illness. Once the severe coughing phase began however, antibiotics became ineffective and the disease could only run its course. Infants in the second phase of the disease became at risk for serious complications including pneumonia, seizures or possibly even brain damage.

Thankfully a vaccine developed in the 1950’s, is now administered to children under the age of seven. And this is no small matter; an estimated 51,000,000 cases worldwide with 600,000 deaths annually occur in countries lacking the vaccine. In the US, a combination vaccine consisting of pertussis, diptheria and tetanus vaccines—known as DTaP— is administered to infants.

Every few years Whooping Cough rears its ugly bacterium; a recent outbreak in California most notably. For us aging Boomers, the original vaccine we received faded in effectiveness long ago—our antibody response to the vaccine typically lasts ten years—allowing us to once again become susceptible to infection. Fortunately, our larger adult airways can better handle the bug and our infections remain are limited in severity, assuming we have no other major illnesses. By coughing or sneezing we can unconsciously pass on the bug to others, with serious potential to unvaccinated children.

Because of these concerns, more health authorities recommend that adults up to age 65 be immunized with the vaccine (known as Tdap) at least once every ten years. Our physician may offer the vaccine and we would be wise to consider taking it. It’s no big whoop for us, but for our kids it’s down right serious.

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About Steve P. Sanders

A general internist writing and sharing ideas and art.

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