Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Pertussis Warning Hits Home, or My Brush With Fame

Once upon a time, at the end of June, we got a friendly email from the parent of a child my son has spent quite a bit of time with this summer, and it said, in essence:

Andrew (fake name alert!) has pertussis (a.k.a. whooping cough), and your child may have been exposed. Andrew was fully vaccinated, but the vaccine is only about 60% effective. If your child develops a cough, go to the doctor and get tested. 

About ten days later, my son said, "Did you see this email from Andrew? Do you know that I've been coughing since Thursday?" At this point, my son's cough was so mild that we hadn't even really noticed it, but since he was set to go to sleepaway camp later that week, we thought we'd better get it checked out. . . especially since a) we didn't want to expose all those kids at camp and b) if we found out after he was at camp, we'd also have to remove him from camp for five days while he took the antibiotics!

So, off to the doctor we went--and although the doctor was skeptical that this was pertussis (especially since my son was vaccinated), he agreed that we should be cautious and he tested him for it (it's a simple nose swab test). Two days later. . . the test came back positive.  The good news is that because we found out early, his cough was gone in short order, and never entered the "whooping" phase or became very violent. 

And this is completely different from my experience 14 years ago, when my husband's coworker had "the cough that wouldn't end." And then my husband got that cough. And then my daughter got that cough. And eventually, we suspected they had pertussis. But I tried several times (and multiple doctors) to get my daughter tested. At that time, the test was not the one they have today, and it was difficult to get accurate results.  The doctors were reluctant. In any case, we never were counted as a positive case (but I was sure--my daughter had the classic whoop and my husband had the "cough until you're blue" cough.) Both my husband and my daughter were ill for quite a long time, and I am so glad that this time we caught it early.

Lessons Learned
1. Vaccinate. Even though the vaccine is only 60% protective, that's a lot better than nothing!

2. Especially if you have a known exposure (a contact who was diagnosed), or if you--or a child of yours--has a persistent cough, don't be afraid to ask the doctor whether pertussis should be considered. (Yes, adults are often the transmitters of pertussis--and frequently are not diagnosed.)

3. If someone in your family gets pertussis, don't forget to notify all the people you've spent time with, so they can be on the lookout...pertussis spreads in the air.

It turns out that our experience is not unique, because the public health department put out an alert when the number of cases this year went over 100.

And so, it came to pass, that I was asked to be on television this afternoon, to speak as a parent about my family's experiences--and as a service to public health, how could I not? 

So here, you have it--my 15 seconds (more or less) of fame! Thanks ABC News!


  1. Hey, was the original kid one from school? Because my middle schooler had pertussis this summer as well! (Although the high schooler who was in class at Pi Hi with a positive case never came down with it.)

  2. The original kid was from a different school, and my son knew him from sports activities. It's weird how pertussis moves (who gets it and who doesn't) but that is at least partly because some people acquire natural immunity and some don't (that's why originally they didn't suggest adults get booster shots and now they do suggest they get them), and it travels through the air.