On Tuesday, California officials confirmed that an infant under 6 months old has died from pertussis — better known as whooping cough — a highly contagious respiratory infection that’s especially dangerous for infants. It’s the first whooping cough fatality in the state since 2016.
In response, public health officials are urging pregnant women, as well as other adults, to get the tetanus-diphtheria-acelluar pertussis — or Tdap — booster vaccine. The Tdap vaccine can help prevent the spread of the infection and protect babies who are too young to be immunized.
“This baby’s death is a tragedy for the family and for California as a community, as this is a preventable disease,” Dr. Karen Smith, director of the state’s Department of Public Health, said in a statement. “This serves as a grim reminder that whooping cough is always present in our communities, and immunizations are the first line of defense.”
Whooping cough is a serious illness that can be especially fatal for infants. Up to 20 babies in the United States die each year from pertussis, while about half of babies under 12 months old who get whooping cough need hospital treatment, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Signs of whooping cough usually develop within five to 10 days, although in some cases, they may take as long as three weeks. Symptoms may mimic a cold, accompanied with a mild cough or fever. But parents of infants need to be especially cautious: Babies may also develop apnea, which is a pause in breathing that can be life-threatening.
Getting vaccinated before you give birth can protect your newborn in the first few months of their life. A 2017 CDC study found that three out of four cases of whooping cough in newborns could be prevented if women got the Tdap vaccine in the third trimester of each pregnancy.
Yet, only 49 percent of pregnant women who gave birth between fall 2015 and spring 2016 received the Tdap vaccine, according to the CDC report published last year.
The CDC recommends that moms-to-be get a booster shot during weeks 27 through 36 of pregnancy. The body will create protective antibodies that can be passed to the baby and protect them until they’re old enough to receive the pertussis vaccine, which is typically around 2 months old.
“If you want to prevent deaths from pertussis in the U.S. then you have to immunize mothers,” Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told the Los Angeles Times.