The United States is facing the worst whooping cough epidemic it has seen in over 50 years, said Dr. Edward McCabe, senior vice president and medical director for the March of Dimes.
Pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, often results in milder cases in adults and adolescents but can be fatal for babies. It is easily preventable by vaccines and booster shots, according to McCabe. While pertussis can be mistaken for a common cold or bronchitis in adults, it can easily be spread to children, causing severe cases. Felicia Dube, near Charlotte, lost her seven-week-old son Carter in 2011. Dube first became concerned when Carter, then only five weeks old, had labored breathing even though he had been fine at a wellness visit only five days earlier. Carter’s labored breathing and oxygen level were concerning enough that he was sent by ambulance to the hospital even though Dube was only five minutes from the hospital.
Dube had no idea what was wrong with her son until someone suggested pertussis and she realized that her grandmother had it. Carter’s condition deteriorated and he began to display the “whooping” cough that gave pertussis its common name. The infant could not catch his breath and turned blue. Dube’s husband, an EMT, was able to help until nurses arrived. “From that point on he just seemed to go downhill so fast that we just could not get ahead of it,” Dube said. Over the next several days Carter was put on several medications, a respirator, and an oscillator. Finally, doctors put him on a heart/lung bypass machine. The array of medical devices did not allow Dube to hold her son and left only one small foot that Dube could touch.
“They can’t prepare you for seeing such a tiny baby with those tubes as big as he was, and a surgery that lasted three or four hours,” Dube said. “They had to put them on the right side of his neck that was hooked to this great big machine. It’s just not something you can prepare yourself to see.”
Despite flu conditions that largely barred children from visiting in hospitals, Carter’s older brother Zachary, then 9, was allowed to visit Carter. Dube said she was very concerned when doctors started whispering and talking to her husband more than her.
Despite the efforts of the medical staff, Carter continued to go downhill. “As a parent, when you’ve done all you can do, you sit beside him and tell him stories about what you hope he’ll be,” Dube said. “But you tell him that if he’s tired and he needs to go that you understand and that’s OK. As a mom, he showed me that he was tired and at that point I knew that we’d done all that we could do for him as far as making him better. At that point you know that you are not going to hold him again while he’s awake.”
Carter died shortly afterwards at only 8 pounds and seven and a half weeks old. Dube said that his life, though short, served a purpose. She only found out he had pertussis on his last day. “We could’ve pointed fingers and tried to figure out who gave it to him,” she said. “We hadn’t taken him out in public except for the pediatrician, so we knew it had been someone we’d brought into our house.” Despite that, Dube said she had no desire to blame anyone — she just wanted to heal. Googling support groups, she came across the Sounds of Pertussis®, a joint initiative from the March of Dimes and Sanofi Pasteur, is a national educational campaign to help raise awareness about the potential dangers of pertussis and the importance of adult immunization.
Pertussis is caused by bacteria called Bordetella pertussis, which is found in the mouth, nose and throat of the person with the disease. It is spread through contact with respiratory droplets made when the sick person coughs or sneezes, according to the March of Dimes. Pertussis can be treated with antibiotics if caught early enough, but the best method is prevention. After the tragedy with Carter, Dube checked daycares and any visitors to make sure anyone in contact with her youngest child, Brennan, 2, had the vaccination. “My dad showed some resistance,” Dube said. “’You know I don’t like shots.’ But I said, ‘you know I’m not going to let you see the baby.’ There were no ifs, ands, or buts. It’s just a shot, and it only hurts for a minute. We’re not asking them to cut off a finger. It’s just a shot. It could’ve saved Carter’s life.”
McCabe said that many people think that whooping cough is one of those diseases that has basically disappeared, such as measles and mumps. It is, however, still very prominent. He stressed the importance of both baby and adult immunizations, as adults often pass the disease on to babies. “We’re in an epidemic,” he said. “The CDC has declared it an epidemic. It used to be that every three to five years pertussis would peak and then it would go kind of dormant but since 1976 it’s been increasing steadily. We’re in the midst of one of the largest outbreaks in about 50 years. The key thing is that it’s preventable. We could get this under control by immunized as teens and adults and protecting the babies that you love.”