Whooping cough claimed the life of a healthy infant earlier this summer and it was a terrible reminder of how devastating this illness can be.
Infants, even vaccinated infants, are more vulnerable because of their size and relative weakness at fighting infection. Even with the help of some immunity that vaccination can provide, without completing the primary vaccine series around 12-15 months of age infants remain relatively at risk.
Even with vaccination, though, data suggest that risk exists. The former version of the vaccine containing whole cell pertussis (given through the early 1990s) seems to have been better at conferring immunity, but it was also much more likely to generate vaccine side effects. The acellular pertussis vaccine that replaced it is burdened with many fewer risks at the time of vaccination but doesn’t appear to be as good at generating a strong immune response.
Some parents seem to have a lot of misunderstandings about the DTaP vaccine as a result. Some think that if their child is fully vaccinated they are safe and that their child can’t get whooping cough. In fact, even a fully vaccinated child can get the illness, but thankfully she isn’t as likely to get a severe case and is much less likely to die from it than a child who is unvaccinated.
Some parents think that because the vaccine hasn’t prevented all children from getting infected with the illness that it doesn’t work at all and isn’t worth doing. That too is wrong. Unvaccinated children get whooping cough at higher rates than vaccinated children and are much sicker when they do get the illness, so any vaccine is better than no vaccine when it comes to DTaP.
I suspect in the years to come our threshold for booster vaccination will be changing though. As of today, we vaccinate children at age 4 or 5 and then not again until age 11 and then again at age 17-18. I suspect that booster vaccinations every 5 years at most will become the norm to better protect us against this severe coughing illness.