Babies need their vaccines

I don’t know if there’s a more disturbing and terrifying sight for a new mother: a baby coughing so violently and rapidly with such repetition that all of the air is gone from the child’s lungs. And then comes the sound — a deep “whooping” gasp as baby struggles to replace the missing air and breathe.

Vomiting often comes next, and with it, a 50-percent chance the child, if an infant, will be hospitalized. For other babies, the symptoms can be less noticeable yet more dangerous, including apnea, or long pauses with no breathing.

None of this has to happen.

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is extremely dangerous for infants and yet is entirely preventable, along with more than a dozen other life-threatening diseases. Safeguarding baby requires the simplest of actions by the mother: straightforward, proven vaccination.

And while we cannot immediately vaccinate a baby against the devastating effects of whooping cough, we can vaccinate the mother, an immunity that covers that precious baby, too. Public health practitioners in Georgia are following the science and, as of this year, now recommend a Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis) vaccine for every pregnant mother in her third trimester.

I’ve heard all the arguments against vaccination. All have been debunked, including the infamous 1980s study in Europe about a similar vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella, and a supposed link – that we now know to be false – to autism, which shattered vaccine use in Europe. Outbreaks now plague the Continent, and here in the U.S., signs of trouble are building.

Pertussis outbreaks in Oregon and Texas and an ongoing outbreak in California should alarm us. In Georgia right now there are 83 confirmed cases of this disease.

Last year, Georgia experienced well over 300 confirmed pertussis cases — 89 of which were infants, and 79 of the cases, in infants less than six months old. And if Georgia follows the nation, Georgia’s mothers will have passed whooping cough to almost half of those infants.

Mothers and expecting mothers, Georgia’s babies need you.

Georgia ranks 39th in the nation for its immunization rates, according to the CDC’s National Immunization Survey, which helps explain Georgia’s 46 pertussis-related infant hospitalizations last year.

At the Georgia Department of Public Health, our team in immunizations has been preparing for National Infant Immunization Week, which begins today. The team will work to improve Georgia’s resilience to vaccine-preventable disease through increased immunization rates among siblings, caregivers, grandparents and infants. I want to reach our state’s mothers-to-be.

I am a mother. I am vaccinated. And I ask you to join me. Choose to vaccinate first yourself, and then your new baby. Follow the vaccine schedule, and guard against diseases like whooping cough that only you can prevent before baby is born.

As a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist, I have seen the devastating and painful effects of whooping cough and other vaccine-preventable diseases. I’ve seen mothers who fear every gasp of air might be their babies’ last.

Get vaccinated. Help spread the truth on vaccines, not the diseases they prevent.

Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald is commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health.

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