When I was pregnant with my daughter last year, my OB/GYN recommended that I receive the pertussis, or “whooping cough” vaccine right after delivery. Hearing the words “whooping cough,” made me think of polio or smallpox, diseases that had been eliminated in the U.S. years ago.

Yet pertussis is a real threat, particularly in infants who not only have the greatest risk for contracting pertussis, but the most reported cases. In 2010, there were more than four thousand babies who were known to be infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Plus, newborns younger than 2 months old, the age that the first vaccine is administered, are most likely to have complications like pneumonia, convulsions, even death. Sixty-three percent of babies under one year are hospitalized each year and 25 babies died from pertussis in 2010. And because some cases are undiagnosed or go unreported, experts agree these numbers may be even higher.

The reason that rates of pertussis have been on the rise in recent years and tend to peak every 3-5 years is because of a waning of immunity, according to Dr. Thomas Clark, a medical epidemiologist for the CDC.  The disease is very easily transmitted so if there’s a portion of the population that’s susceptible because they haven’t received the booster vaccine, which is recommended during the adolescent and adult years, then the bacteria will transmit more readily.

What To Look For
Pertussis is a bacterial disease that causes severe fits of coughing—so severe, that it forces all the air out of the lungs and results in a “whoop” sound when the person is finally able to inhale. Yet initially, symptoms may be similar to the common cold and include a mild cough or low-grade fever.  And in very young infants, whooping cough can cause apnea, or a pause in breathing, which is a sign of a very serious infection, according to Clark.  Babies often contract pertussis from someone in the home – mom, dad, or a caregiver, although they can also catch it in hospitals and daycare settings.

Protect Yourself and Your Baby
If you’re pregnant, you should receive the pertussis booster vaccine (Tdap) during the late second or third trimester, according to a revised recommendation by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices issued last year. Women who don’t receive it during pregnancy are urged to get it immediately after giving birth. Family members and caregivers should get vaccinated, too, and it’s important to keep your baby away from anyone who has cold or cough symptoms.

Babies should receive the pertussis vaccination series on time, starting at 2 months old, then at 4 and 6 months old and booster doses between 15 and 18 months and then between 4 and 6 years old. “Protection wanes actually pretty quickly,” according to Clark who says booster doses are important to ensure your child is protected.

Julie Revelant is a freelance writer specializing in parenting, health, and women's issues and a mom. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com