Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Get your shots!

Whooping Cranes
Image Credit: Patuxent Widlife Research Center, USGS

When I was a kid, I thought that whooping cough was a disease caused by whooping cranes (pictured above).  But, it isn't.  It's caused by bacteria.  Whooping cough, a.k.a. pertussis, is a highly contageous disease, it is very dangerous for infants, and it can be prevented most of the time by a vaccination.

Why am I talking about pertussis on an astronomy blog?  Because I learned this morning that my daughter has contracted whooping cough.  She's a teenager, and so with treatment she'll fully recover. As an infant, she did receive her pertussis vaccination, but its effectiveness decreases over time.  Pertussis boosters are available, but we were not aware of them until now, when it is too late.

According to our doctor, pertussis is on the increase.  This year seems to be particularly bad, because the disease is a secondary infection (a disease that you get when you are sick with something else), and pertussis seems to be thriving as a secondary infection for H1N1 ("swine flu").  But even prior to H1N1, pertussis has been on the increase, as fewer and fewer parents are getting their children the vaccination.  These parents are under the mistaken impression that vaccinations are dangerous (just go to the Bad Astronomy blog and search for "antivax" to read all about this dangerous movement).

In reality, the opposite is true.  NOT vaccinating your child is dangerous.  The youngest infants, those most at risk from pertussis, are too young for vaccinations.  As long as their parents, playmates, and any other people these infants are in contact with are immune, then the infants are more isolated from the disease, and unlikely to get it.  But as fewer and fewer people are vaccinated, the disease is becoming more widespread, putting these infants at risk.

As a parent, it is nerve-wracking to hear that your child has a disease like whooping cough.  It's simultaneously a relief that my child is old enough to come through with little risk of severe complications.  But the thought in the back of my mind remains, what if she were much younger?  What if we had an infant in the house? The consequences then could have been dire.  You can bet that I will be calling my doctor for that booster shot, if they'll give it to adults.

Today's lesson is simple: get vaccinated against deadly childhood diseases.  Get your children vaccinated.  Unless we reverse the trend of declining vaccinations, an increasing number of infants in the United States (or wherever you live) will die from whooping cough, a fully preventable disease.

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