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Only Half of Pregnant Women Are Getting a Vaccine They Really Need

Photograph by Twenty20

Although there have been fewer reported cases of whooping cough singe 2014, there's a startling number of pregnant women who still aren't getting the vaccine for this contagious, preventable illness while pregnant, says the CDC.

It's recommended that all pregnant women receive the TDAP vaccine, which protects from tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough).

Because infants can't receive any version of the pertussis vaccine to prevent whooping cough until they're at least two months old, it's crucial for moms to get the vaccine to protect their baby until they're old enough to get the vaccine themselves. The vaccine benefits that pass from the mother to the baby before birth are more than 91 percent effective at protecting the baby for those two months, according to an observational study published in the journal Pediatrics in April.

However, in 2015—the most recent year for which data is available—the CDC says that less than half of all pregnant women nationwide got the vaccine.

Researchers followed close to 150,000 babies born in California between 2010 and 2015 until they were 1 year old. About 25 percent of their moms did not get a TDAP vaccine while pregnant. Out of the 103 babies in the study that came down with whooping cough, nearly 78 percent of them were not protected from pertussis because their moms didn't receive a vaccine while pregnant.

Whooping cough often presents with symptoms of the common cold; runny nose, congestion, and perhaps a cough or fever. Although the hallmark sign of whooping cough is a distinct "whoop" sound, it's important to note that not everyone who comes down with pertussis makes the sound. It's contagious from the onset of symptoms and at least two weeks after the coughing fits may start. And, doctors say, symptom-free carriers can spread whooping cough, which is probably why there were huge outbreaks in 2012 and 2014.

But make no mistake—it's much more dangerous than the common cold and cough. Whooping cough can cause apnea (a pause in breathing) in infants, and the cough can get progressively worse, causing difficulty breathing, eating, drinking and sleeping. Coughing fits can last for 10 weeks, says the CDC, and some infants and children cough so badly that they end up vomiting.

Severe cases of whooping cough in infants have also been linked to pneumonia, seizures, brain damage and even death. In fact, 87 percent of whooping cough-related deaths in the U.S. between 2000 and 2014 were infants younger than 3 months old.

At the very least, it's likely that an infant that catches whooping cough will end up in the hospital since a newborn's lungs aren't strong enough yet. Is it really worth the risk to not get vaccinated during pregnancy?

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