Local baby is first to die from whooping cough; new tips for pregnant moms

Dec 18, 2012

The whooping cough epidemic in Washington is nearly over – but not soon enough for a baby in King County. The newborn was Washington’s first fatality this year, despite a near-record number of infections.

"The baby had gone home, and we believe it was exposed to someone with unrecognized pertussis, got infected, and then developed complications and died," says Jeff Duchin, chief of epidemiology for Public Health Seattle & King County.

The newborn was less than two months old – meaning it was too young to get vaccinated against whooping cough. The first shots are given after two months.

Protecting those young babies is one reason a booster shot is recommended for adults and older children. The illness is typically like a cold, in adults, but with a cough that can last for months.

A new strategy involves vaccinating pregnant women.

"By vaccinating the mom, she produces high levels of antibodies and they get transferred to the baby, and the baby is born with good antibody protection," says Duchin.

The federal advisory group on vaccines has been studying whether this would work, and the group announced in October this is the best way to protect newborns, suggesting for the first time that the Tdap booster (which also includes tetanus and diptheria) should be given during every pregnancy, regardless of whether the mother has had recent tetanus boosters. Previously, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the shot only if the mother hadn't had a recent booster.

The Tdap booster must be given in the final months of pregnancy, or the benefits will wear off before the baby is born.

The recommendation is so new many doctors may not be aware of it. Nationally, less than 3% of pregnant women were given the Tdap booster last year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Immunizing family members also helps -- by providing a "cocoon" of immunity around a newborn.

The epidemic in Washington this year has led to more than 4,600 infections, the most in this state since 1941.