Getting the Whooping Cough Vaccine While You're Pregnant Could Save Your Baby's Life

New guidelines for the use of Tdap for pregnant women.


It's any mom-to-be's number one concern: doing what she can to make sure her baby is healthy. That's why Sarah Michelle Gellar decided to get a Tdap vaccine to protect her son, Rocky, from pertussis, or whooping cough: a highly contagious infection that can be deadly for babies.

"The best way to help prevent [pertussis] is to vaccinate yourself and your children against it," the actress, who became national campaign ambassador for the Sounds of Pertussis campaign, told Celebrity Baby Scoop. The educational campaign from the March of Dimes and Sanofi Pasteur is spreading the word that it's not just babies who carry whooping cough. "It can be the adults that give it to them," Gellar explains.

Cases of pertussis have been climbing in the U.S. since the 1980s, and preliminary data shows the 2012 outbreak was the largest in nearly 60 years, according to Jennifer L. Liang, DVM, MPVM, an epidemiologist with the CDC who co-authored a study analyzing the impact of pregnancy vaccination on reducing annual infant pertussis incidence. The study, published online in Pediatrics, supports the current recommendation of the US Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices that the best time to get a Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis) vaccine is between the 27-weeks-pregnant and 36-weeks-pregnant marks, irrespective of the patient's prior history of receiving Tdap, rather than postpartum, as was previously recommended.

CDC data shows that over 48,000 cases of pertussis were reported in the U.S. in 2012, along with 20 deaths, the majority of deaths being babies younger than 3 months old. "Newborns only have the antibodies they get from their mother to help protect them from pertussis until they are old enough to get their own vaccines. Getting Tdap while pregnant gives your baby the best protection possible against catching pertussis and having severe complications from the infection," Liang says. In fact, researchers recently compared pregnant women who were vaccinated at 30 weeks to 32 weeks of pregnancy to pregnant women given a placebo, and found that babies of the vaccinated mothers had higher concentrations of pertussis antibodies, which may protect the newborns before they're old enough for their own shot. The study was published in JAMA.

In studies where researchers have been able to identify how a baby caught whooping cough, they determined that in about 80 percent of cases, someone in the baby's household got the child sick, Liang says. More specifically, moms were responsible for 32 percent to 38 percent of infections in babies, followed by friends, cousins or others (10-24 percent); brothers and sisters (16-21 percent); dads (15–17 percent), aunts or uncles (10 percent); grandparents (6 percent); and caretakers (2 percent). The recent study from CDC researchers supports the current recommendation that "cocooning" your newborn by vaccinating your partner and other adults who will be around your baby, in addition to yourself, is beneficial.

"The [study] only looked at the mother, partner and grandparent, but CDC recommends that anyone who is around a newborn should get Tdap. This includes the mother while she is pregnant, her partner, grandparents and other relatives who will be in close contact with the baby, healthcare providers, and other caregivers," Liang says. While you might be nervous about getting a vaccine while you're pregnant, Liang says Tdap is perfectly safe for mother and baby.

"Experts have studied Tdap vaccine for adolescents and adults and they have concluded that it is very safe for pregnant women and their unborn babies. Among women who have already received Tdap during pregnancy, none have reported any safety concerns, and there is no evidence of risk to mom or baby," she says. However, possible side effects include redness, swelling, pain, and tenderness where the shot is given, and body reactions like body-ache, fatigue, or fever.

Pertussis is spread from person to person, usually by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others. It is known as "whooping cough" because of the "whooping" sound that is made when gasping for air after a fit of coughing, but in infants, the cough can be minimal or not even there. You can "hear the sound" of pertussis by clicking on the icon on the right-hand side of the Sounds of Pertussis website.

Liang is happy that celebs like Gellar are working to raise awareness of the dangers of pertussis, and the importance of vaccination.

"We hope that all pregnant women and their healthcare providers become aware of the Tdap recommendation so we can save as many babies as possible from this terrible infection," she says.

Learn more about pertussis (whooping cough), from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control).