Leena was born a happy healthy baby, but two weeks into her life, she developed a severe cough. Doctors told her mother, Dr. Lisa Farkouh, that Leena only had a cold, but the symptoms continued and worsened.
After a battery of tests and a cough so severe that it would leave Leena unable to breathe, she was diagnosed with whooping cough -- an extremely contagious bacterial disease that causes violent coughing -- and pneumonia at 6 weeks old. She was admitted into the neonatal intensive care unit.
"Death rates are so high in babies who get whooping cough because they have no immunity and they haven't started their vaccinations," said Farkouh, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Denver. "She coughed for six months, but luckily she's now a healthy 2-year-old. My concern is that other babies out there won't be as lucky."
Farkouh said she has racked her brain trying to figure out how Leena contracted whooping cough. She said the baby was not exposed to unhealthy people who visited. She assumes that someone in the community exposed Leena to it.
Dr. Anne Gershon, director of pediatric infectious disease at Columbia University Medical Center, confirmed Farkouh's belief that babies often come down with whooping cough, also called pertussis, through others in the community.
"These days, adults are getting pertussis and some doctors are unaware of this or don't think it is possible for an adult to have this infection," said Gershon. "Today, a lot of pertussis probably spreads from teenagers and adults who have lost immunity to this infection. We have also come to realize that having had pertussis once in the past does not necessarily mean that it won't occur again."
Farkouh, who has become an advocate for whooping cough vaccinations, said pertussis, the medical term for whooping cough, saw a 2,000 percent increase in the U.S. in 2010.
In response to the push for vaccinations, California and nearly a dozen other states recently passed laws that require parents to prove that their middle- and high-school aged children received a whooping cough vaccination. The law was prompted by a whooping cough outbreak that killed 10 babies and sickened about 9,000 people last year in California.
While people of all ages can come down with whooping cough, even if they've been vaccinated, it's particularly dangerous for newborns' systems because they don't have the immunity or vaccine to fight off the infection. Studies show that about 75 percent of newborns that come down with whooping cough get it from a family member. Eighty-three percent of all deaths from pertussis between 2004 and 2008 were in children less than three months old.
Because of the high rate of whooping cough in young infants, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended that pregnant mothers get vaccinated with Tdap, a vaccine to protect against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis.
"The mother then passes her antibodies to the baby before they are born, and this helps protect the baby against getting whooping cough prior to the time that the infant gets the first three doses of the vaccine," said Dr. Jon Abramson, chair of the advisory committee on immunization practices of the CDC.
Leena's story comes on the heels of an Associated Press report released Monday that found more and more parents have opted out of school vaccines for their kids. The AP reported that the reasons for declining vaccines varied. Some doubted the need for vaccines, others feared adverse effects and other parents said it's easier to check a box opting out of the shots, rather than go through the necessary paperwork and time.
A current example of the problems caused when increasing numbers of people do not get the recommended vaccines is described in a report published Thursday, which found a very large measles outbreak that involved 26,074 people living in multiple countries in Europe, Abramson said.
"In these countries, measles had been a rare disease, but the incidence is now markedly increased due to declining use of the measles vaccine," said Abramson.
There was a roughly 30-year increase in life expectancy in the United States in the 20th century, and 25 of those years are attributable to public health interventions, said Dr. Matt Boulton, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan.
"Of all the public health interventions we have undertaken, most public health professionals would agree that vaccination has been the most cost-effective and has had the greatest impact on prolonging life and reducing serious illness and death, especially in pediatric populations," said Boulton. "Most of the major vaccine preventable diseases that literally killed thousands of children in this country at the beginning of the 20th century have experienced reductions of greater than 99 percent because of vaccines. It is ironic that the very intervention that has saved so many lives would now be criticized as a cause of adverse events or life-threatening reactions."
While many anti-vaccine activists argue that there is not enough sound research for vaccination advocacy, Dr. Mark Sawyer, a professor of pediatrics at University of California at San Diego, said that vaccines are actually the best studied medical intervention out there.
Experts know more about the safety of vaccines than most available surgeries and medications because of the ability to track adverse effects of people who receive various vaccines.
"Those studies are going on all the time scanning for rare vaccine reactions," said Sawyer. "By doing so, we now know that vaccines do not cause autism and they do not cause other serious problems. Although any vaccine can have side effects, in all cases the risk of getting the disease is much greater than the risk of a serious side effect from the vaccine designed to prevent that disease."
"The vaccines that [babies] get are a drop in the bucket compared to the wide variety of "friendly" germs that we all carry, so the idea that vaccines can overload the immune system and cause harm is nonsensical," said Gershon. "If parents want to do something beneficial for their children, they should vaccinate them, and according to schedule."