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Healthy Outlook

With Whooping Cough on the Rise, a Simple Shot Can Help Keep Kids Safe

By Paul Leung, MPH

Thursday, September 26, 2013

When children get sick, parents instinctively try to help them to feel better. But what if neither you nor your doctor can help, no matter how hard you try?

Children with whooping cough may gasp, even retch or vomit, as they struggle to breathe between uncontrollable coughing fits. A baby might stop breathing and turn blue.

There may be no more helpless feeling in the world, either for the child or the parent. “Whooping cough” sounds like a sad story from the 19th century, but this dangerous disease never went away. In fact, we see a surge in this disease every two to five years. During the last surge, in 2010, 10 babies died and there were more than 9,000 cases documented in our state.

The bad news is that whooping cough, also called pertussis, is again on the rise in the Bay Area. During the first eight months of 2013, twice as many cases of pertussis were reported in Contra Costa County than in all of 2012. Many other counties are reporting sharp increases as well.

The good news is that vaccination is the best and easiest way to avoid getting pertussis and spreading it. A simple shot can help protect you and your loved ones.

Our parents helped keep us healthy by getting us vaccinated when we were very young. But whether you get vaccinated for pertussis or recover from pertussis disease, the protection is not life-long. To make sure you are protected from pertussis, you must receive a booster shot to “boost” your fading protection.

If this is news to you, you probably need one.

As immunization coordinator for Contra Costa Health Services, I often need to explain the difference between a booster shot and that initial series of vaccinations most people receive as young children.

Babies get a lot of shots to protect them from a host of serious diseases, including pertussis. They typically receive multiple doses of vaccines spaced over the first few months of life, gaining better protection with each dose.

But many adults don’t know that the protection from the pertussis vaccine wears off over time. An adult who has not received the booster shot can unknowingly catch the disease – its symptoms often resemble those of a bad cold in adults – and remain contagious for weeks if not treated with antibiotics.

The pertussis booster shot, called Tdap, can be given to anyone 10 and older, and is particularly recommended for pregnant women during every pregnancy to help protect the newborn. Since 2011, California has also required every student entering the 7th grade to show proof they received it before starting school.

However, many other adults are unaware of the vaccine because it was not around during their school years. Any adult who has not already received this booster should consider it, particularly those who have any contact with small children.

Please, take the time to get a Tdap if you haven’t already. And if you are not sure, check with your doctor.

Getting that shot is a small price to pay, if it means never feeling helpless during a child’s moment of crisis.

Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at For more health information, go to
About the Author

Paul Leung, MPH is the Immunization Coordinator for Contra Costa Health Services.