Chicago hospital works to keep infants safe from whooping cough

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, Finn.

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 several years.

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 schedule.

“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 study.

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 their babies.”

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.”

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