Updated 22 May 2015

Vaccinate pregnant moms to prevent whooping cough in babies

Having pregnant women vaccinated against whooping cough is the best way to protect their newborns from respiratory infections, according to new medical recommendations.


Vaccinating pregnant women against whooping cough is the best way to protect their newborns from respiratory infections that can prove fatal, according to new recommendations from the Global Pertussis Initiative (GPI).

Particularly devastating

If inoculation during pregnancy isn't feasible, the next best option is vaccinating immediate family members, caregivers and other people who regularly come in close contact with infants, according to the GPI, a group of scientists focused on eradicating whooping cough.

"Pertussis infection in small infants is particularly devastating," Dr. Kevin Forsyth, lead author of the guidelines, said in an email. In addition to intense, uncontrollable coughing fits caused by the lung disease, it can also lead to potentially fatal side effects like septic shock and suffocation, he said.

"The best thing parents can do is have the mother immunised during pregnancy, which boosts her immunity and transfers protection to the baby," added Forsyth, who is a professor of paediatrics at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia.

Read: Causes of a cough

The bacteria Bordetella pertussis causes whooping cough, which gets its nickname from the sounds patients make as they gasp for air during intense coughing fits. Pertussis is highly contagious and easily spread when an infected individual coughs or sneezes.

Each year, an estimated 16 million people worldwide catch pertussis and about 200,000 of them die, according to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. About half of babies under age one who catch pertussis require hospitalisation.

Health officials in many countries recommend vaccination during pregnancy, as well as a series of three shots for infants starting sometime between 6 weeks and 3 months of age.

Extending vaccination

Some countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., also recommend that women get vaccinated during each pregnancy because effectiveness of the shot wanes over time, according to the GPI position statement in the journal Paediatrics.

Extending vaccination to all individuals who come in contact with infants, a practice known as cocooning, might be even more effective than only inoculating pregnant women. Siblings, grandparents, and caregivers, for example, would get vaccinated at least two weeks prior to coming in contact with the infant, Forsyth told Reuters Health.

"The theory is that if people in close contact with the infant are not carrying the germ, then they cannot transmit it to the infant," Forsyth said. "Yes, it works, but practically it is not really feasible."

Read: Types of cough

Unlike some other vaccines, which can provide immunity for years, the shots for pertussis lose effectiveness fairly quickly, said Dr. Bonnie Maldonado, chief of the division of infectious diseases in the paediatrics department at Stanford University School of Medicine and a member of the American Academy of Paediatrics committee on infectious diseases.

"If you look at mothers' antibodies after vaccination they are pretty high for the first nine months, then within two years the antibody levels have dropped very low," said Maldonado, who wasn't involved in the study. "That's why the mother needs a dose for every pregnancy."

Vaccinating pregnant mothers may be up to 90 percent effective in preventing infants from getting pertussis, and the cocoon approach to inoculation may be about 60 percent to 70 percent effective, Maldonado told Reuters Health.

Risk is highest for young babies

"Pertussis can affect anybody at any age, but the risk is highest for severe symptoms and complications for young babies because of their small airways," Maldonado said. "We need to make sure that infants at high risk are protected until their vaccinations are complete."

Forsyth has received funds from Sanofi Pasteur, a vaccine maker. His co-authors have received funds from Sanofi as well as from vaccine producers Merck & Co., GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis.

Read More:

Honey may ease night-time coughing in kids

Five of the weirdest things to cause a cough

Whooping cough vaccine loses strength over time

Image: Pregnant woman vaccinated from Shutterstock


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Professor Keertan Dheda has received several prestigious awards including the 2014 Oppenheimer Award, and has published over 160 peer-reviewed papers and holds 3 patents related to new TB diagnostic or infection control technologies. He serves on the editorial board of the journals PLoS One, the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Medicine, Lancet Respiratory Diseases and Nature Scientific Reports, amongst others. Read his full biography at the University of Cape Town Lung Institute.

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