Why All Pregnant Moms Really Should Get Their Whooping Cough Booster

by Wendy Wisner
Image Point Fr / Shutterstock

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard that cases of whooping cough (pertussis) are on a sharp rise in the United States. The anti-vax movement may or may not be to blame here, but researchers are currently going with the theory that this rise is mostly because the effectiveness of the vaccine (DTaP, which is the shot that’s been used since the mid-1990s) starts to wane sooner than expected — after a child’s last booster at 4 to 6 years old.

Listen up: Whooping cough is no joke. It isn’t something to brush off as just another disease we all should get to toughen up our immune systems. And for Christ’s sake, it’s not at all just another nasty cough, folks. According to the CDC, during the second stage of the illness, pertussis can cause serious coughing fits (with the classic “whooping” sound) for 10 or more weeks at a time! These fits can cause you to vomit and leave you utterly exhausted.

But the most serious cases of whooping cough occur in babies, especially in their first two months of life, before they are eligible to receive their first DTaP vaccination. Each year, 10,000 to 50,000 cases of whooping cough are reported (that’s a lot of potential people for your baby to be exposed to), and tons of people (mostly babies and children) are hospitalized with it. About 10 to 20 infants die of whopping cough each year.

Just one look at a baby who is connected to ventilator fighting for their life should be enough to make you take this disease very seriously. Take, for example, the story of baby Isabelle, whose mom shared pictures of her heartbreaking hospitalization with whooping cough at just 6 weeks old. She did so to implore everyone to vaccinate their kids against this awful disease — not just for their own protection, but to protect babies like Isabelle and many others who should never have to go through a serious health crisis like this at such an early age.

But it turns out there is something else we mothers can do to protect our babies from whooping cough. Since 2013, the CDC has recommended that all women get a Tdap booster during pregnancy. The recommendation is that all pregnant women get the shot during the 27th through 36th week of pregnancy, and preferably during the beginning of that time frame. That gives your body just enough time to produce antibodies against the disease, which can then be passed to your baby.

The CDC stresses that this should be done for each of your pregnancies, no matter how close together they are. The booster shot used to be recommended after you have a baby to ensure that you will not contract the disease and pass it to your baby, but researchers now believe getting it during pregnancy gives your baby more effective coverage, especially since it takes a few weeks for you to receive full immunity from the shot.

And all of this is especially important because of the fact that your baby won’t receive their first DTaP shot until 2 months of age, and given the rise in cases of whooping cough, your precious baby needs all the protection they can get.

If all of this isn’t convincing you that the CDC recommendation is right on the money (and that skipping the shot is downright foolish), new research from the Kaiser Permanente Vaccine Study Center has found that babies whose moms get the Tdap booster during pregnancy are 91% less likely to contract pertussis during their first two months of life when they are most vulnerable to the disease.

And there’s more:Babies whose moms got the shot while pregnant were also 69% less likely to catch whooping cough during their entire first year of life. Those are pretty reassuring odds, if you ask me.

“Maternal Tdap administered during pregnancy was highly effective at protecting infants against pertussis prior to their first dose of DTaP. Through the first year of life, maternal Tdap continued to provide protection without interfering with DTaP,” said Dr. Klein, one of the Kaiser researchers. “It is reassuring that at every level of DTaP exposure, children with maternal Tdap are better protected.”

Now, I totally get why the idea of getting a vaccination while pregnant might feel a little uncomfortable to some. When I had babies, this wasn’t the recommendation yet, and I know that I would have needed a little encouragement to believe that it was the right thing to do (for me, it’s not one particular thing, but just an age-old, irrational fear of getting a shot!). But I think that fact that the shot is proven to be safe, effective, and truly lifesaving for babies would have been enough to get me over any of my misgivings about getting the shot.

In fact, even though I don’t plan to become pregnant anytime soon, next time I visit the doctor, I’m going to ask if I should be getting a Tdap booster — to protect myself, my children, and our most vulnerable citizens — all those cute little newborns out there who should never, ever have to be fighting for their life because of a vaccine-preventable disease.

And if you haven’t done so yet, I recommend you do the same.