Parents do everything they can to prevent their new baby from being exposed to a potentially deadly illnesses. So where are infants exposed to the bacteria that causes pertussis? Studies show that infants between birth and 11 months of age most often are exposed by mom, siblings, and dad – the very people who spend the most amount of time with the new infant.
Of course, family members don’t do this on purpose. There are some diseases that are very tricky. Pertussis is one of those. You can actually have the disease – and be passing it to others – without showing any symptoms for several days. This means you become a vector (or transmitter) for disease without even knowing it.
So how do we protect this youngest and most vulnerable group? A two pronged approach is the best defense.
First, pregnant women should be vaccinated every pregnancy between the 27th to 36th week of their pregnancy. If vaccinated at this point, mom develops antibodies that help protect her from getting pertussis. Her immune system actually makes the most antibodies in the first few weeks after vaccination – and these antibodies are passed from her to her baby. Yep, just as baby is getting oxygen and other nutrients from mom, they can also receive mom’s protecting antibodies that can help keep an infection away during pregnancy, and for some time after the delivery.
Second, we want to protect those closest to baby from getting the disease themselves. Dad and siblings should also make certain their vaccinations are up-to-date. As we all know, kids are great at spreading disease. They love to touch things, and lets be frank … they can be messy and don’t clean up after themselves all that well. That doesn’t mean we want to keep them away from the baby, we just want to give them protection so they don’t pass things along.
This is called community protection – sometimes referred to as cocooning. By wrapping baby in layers of protection – or people vaccinated against disease – you keep disease further away and reduce the risk of your infant getting sick.
Immunizations such as pertussis are given in a series of vaccinations. Doctors and scientists have found that the human immune system will create antibodies on the first vaccine dose, but in order to create more lasting protection you need to repeat the process multiple times to remind your immune system to keep making antibodies. So the first vaccine received creates antibodies of protection. The next doses continue to teach your immune system to protect you. In the case of pertussis, that immunization series actually has five vaccination times (at ages two months, four months, six months, between 15 to 18 months, and between four and six years ). This is all done with the DTaP vaccine.
Another booster, to remind the immune system how to fight the disease, is given to kids as part of seventh grade immunizations. This immunization uses the Tdap vaccine. All subsequent adult boosters also use the Tdap vaccine.
But you don’t have to remember all these dates and vaccines types. Your doctor – with his or her years of training and experience – will keep track of these for you. In Utah, we have a life-time vaccination registry call the Utah Statewide Immunization Information System (or USIIS). It is a secure, confidential immunization information system that helps healthcare providers, schools, child care centers and Utah residents maintain consolidated immunization histories. Only authorized users – like your doctor – have access to USIIS, but you can access these records anytime you need your child’s vaccination history for immunizations that were received and recorded in Utah. You can also find your own vaccination history as well! If you change doctors, they also can see your child’s vaccination history to make certain they are up-to-date.
Bringing it back to your baby, by immunizing the family you are creating layers of protection with those that spend the most time with and care the most about your infant. These close contacts are important as a secondary level of protection. By giving mom a booster vaccine each pregnancy between 27 and 36 weeks, your baby receives important protection from mom until they can start their own vaccination series.
Are vaccines one hundred percent effective at preventing disease? No. Unfortunately, like most things in life, there are no guarantees. They are the best protection we can offer. They have been proven safe and effective for decades. In the past 20 years, pertussis vaccine has kept about 2.5 million people out of the hospital and has prevented about 20,000 deaths in the U.S. Getting the pertussis vaccine is absolutely better than doing nothing and hoping your child will stay safe on their own. You want to do everything you can to keep your baby safe, and this includes immunizations for baby, yourself and your family.
Have questions? See your doctor. They have the education, training, and experience to know what is in your best health interest. You can also visit Intermountain pharmacies for more information and for many vaccinations. The point is that in order for all of us to live the healthiest lives possible, we need to work together to help see preventable diseases eliminated from our community.