Hopefully you already got a flu shot this year. But you should consider rolling up your sleeve for another shot: a pertussis vaccine.
Pertussis, or whooping cough, has been on the rise recently in a number of communities, putting young children and people with compromised immune systems at risk. Whooping cough can make adults sick, especially older and more vulnerable adults, but it can be deadly for babies and small children. The airways in their lungs are so small that when the infection causes them to swell, they have trouble getting enough air to breathe. Their airways begin to spasm, and they cough and gasp for breath.
“It’s really an important vaccine for adults because adults are the ones who can transmit this disease to little babies, and it’s the little babies who are dying of whooping cough,” says Dr. Deborah Wexler, a family practice physician and the executive director of the Immunization Action Coalition. “What we’re trying to do is cocoon these babies in protection.”
Although most children are protected against pertussis in a series of vaccines that are given in infancy, the immunity wears off over time. And until recently, few adults were going out of their way to get a pertussis booster shot, despite a 2005 recommendation issued by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) that teens and adults get a Tdap (tetanus toxoid, reduced diphtheria toxoid and acellular pertussis) booster.
But many adults may not even realize it when they do contract whooping cough—or have simply been exposed to it. So they don’t realize they’re exposing others.
“It’s a highly underreported and underdiagnosed illness,” says Dr. Herschel Lessin, a pediatrician and co-author of a recent report on vaccinating adults in a pediatric setting for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In late 2010, ACIP began recommending an expanded use of the Tdap vaccine. And infectious disease experts are now encouraging adults to get a pertussis booster shot. The vaccine is now recommended for everyone up to age 64, and it’s possible that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will soon expand the recommendation for people older than 64.
If you can’t remember whether you’ve had a booster in recent years, it’s probably best to assume that you haven’t and contact your health care provider. That goes double for expectant mothers in the latter part of their pregnancies.
“You should do it when you’re pregnant because the most vulnerable your kid is going to be is when he’s right out of the oven,” Lessin says.