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Whooping cough is caused by inhalation of the airborne droplets of someone infected with pertussis. A person with pertussis who coughs or sneezes around an unvaccinated person may spread the disease readily. Pertussis is a virus, once nearly eradicated in the US after vaccinations became a standard part of well-child examinations.
Recently, however, it has made somewhat of a comeback because some parents refuse to have their children vaccinated for the illness. Also, those who come to the US illegally may not have received vaccinations and may carry the disease into the country, exposing those with either poor immune systems or who have not been vaccinated.
The most at-risk population in the US is infants who have not completed their vaccinations. Whooping cough is very contagious, and unvaccinated infants and children have a 90% chance of contracting the illness if they are in contact with other children who are ill, or if they live in a home where someone gets the disease.
Complications in infants who have whooping cough can be especially severe. They include pneumonia, seizures, encephalitis, bleeding in the eyes, and possibly death. With such risks, many wonder why some parents would choose not to vaccinate their children.
Some children cannot be vaccinated because of previous life-threatening reactions to vaccinations. In some cases, parents believe that vaccinations may be indicated in the development of autism. The medical community in Europe and the US has found that there is no medical evidence supporting this claim. Onset of autism tends to occur at about two years, when children frequently receive their last booster shot, called a DPT (diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus).
Many physicians and parents criticize the decision of some parents to not vaccinate their children, since children who get diseases like whooping cough are more apt to pass them on to people with compromised immune systems or to infants. Those who support vaccinations feel that parents who do not vaccinate their children put others at risk unnecessarily, including the lives of children who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons. This is a very difficult and oft-disputed issue by both parents and pediatricians.
If you suspect your child has developed whooping cough it is important to see a doctor immediately. Especially in newborns the disease can cause periods of apnea, or breath holding, instead of the cough associated with the disease. Also, be certain to inform the pediatrician that you suspect whooping cough as they may have protocols they need you to follow to protect other children in their office from contagion.