Shea O'Machel was born on September 11, 2004, a few days late
but healthy and a chubby 8 pounds, 7 ounces. Her parents brought
her back to their Deerfield home to join her older brother,
But three weeks later, the O'Machels noticed something was
wrong. Shea hadn't gained any weight and she was fussy. And that
cough - like nothing her parents had ever heard. With each spasm,
her little body shook, she turned blue and threw up. When it was
over, there was a long rasp as she struggled to breathe again.
That's the telltale sound of whooping cough, or pertussis, a
highly contagious disease that can cause severe respiratory
infections. Once a major killer of young children, pertussis
had been largely wiped out, thanks to a vaccine developed in the
1930s. Cases dropped to an all-time low in the 1970s, but have been
creeping up in recent decades, with a notable spike in the past
An outbreak in California in 2009 killed 10 babies and put the
disease back on the public health watch list. In Illinois, cases
were up 40 percent from 2009 to 2010.
Infants are especially at risk, since the vaccine isn't given
until eight weeks, and they are more susceptible to complications
-- and more likely to die.
"Having her survive, we know we're lucky," Patty O'Machel says.
"But a lot of parents see that and think, OK, the baby survived,
and they think that's the end. They don't see down the road."
For Shea O'Machel, that road didn't end with the diagnosis, or
with the three weeks she spent in the intensive care unit at
Children's Memorial Hospital, or even four months later, when the
cough finally faded.
Scarring on her brain, a direct result of the pertussis, left
Shea with a type of cerebral palsy. Now 6 years old, she cannot
stand or walk independently, spends hours in therapy every day and
receives botox injections to help relax her rigid muscles.
Dr. Tina Tan, an infectious disease doctor at Children's
Memorial, says outcomes like Shea are rare in adults, but much more
common in infants. One in five babies with whooping cough will get
pneumonia. One in 100 will develop seizures. And some, like Shea,
will be left with long-term damage from swelling of the brain.
So how to tackle whooping cough? First and foremost, says Lisa
Kritz of the Chicago Area Immunization Campaign, follow the
"Start your immunizations on time and stick with them," she
says. As National Infant Immunization Week (April 23-30)
approaches, the campaign is pushing its message hard.
But another piece of the pie is what doctors call "cocooning,"
or surrounding susceptible newborns with vaccinated adults. Most
babies get whooping cough from a parent - about 80 percent in one
Tan and Northwestern Memorial Hospital are three years into a
project to cut that number down. In 2008, Prentice Women's Hospital
opened a clinic to give all new mothers a postpartum pertussis
booster. Fathers and other close relatives can also get one.
"We know infants get antibodies from their moms, but most moms'
antibodies have waned," Tan says. "They need a booster to protect
Patty O'Machel says she had a cough when Shea was born, but
doctors chalked it up to the stress of a new baby and a
20-month-old already at home. She says she's not sure it was
pertussis, but made sure to get the vaccine to protect her youngest
daughter, 3-year-old McKenna.
"I think sometimes parents don't see the big picture," she says.
"This is the rest of our lives now, and if you can protect your
baby, I don't see why you wouldn't do that."
See more of Liz's stories here.
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