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Guest commentary/Vulnerable children & families

Guest column: Rise in whooping cough puts Michigan babies at risk

By Cynthia Williams/Michigan Education Special Services Association

Think about the last time you coughed – or the last time someone coughed near you.

Did you notice a runny nose? Sneezing?

These common symptoms could indicate a common cold. Or they could stem from whooping cough, a life-threatening disease that’s on the rise in the United States. There are also signs and recent media reports in Michigan of a resurgence of the disease in our state. 

Cynthia Williams is executive director of MESSA, a not-for-profit organization serving more than 66,000 public school employees and their families statewide.

State of Michigan communicable disease tracking

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is unfortunately on the rise after decades of decline. If current trends continue, we could have twice as many cases as last year, according to public health experts.

A century ago, whooping cough killed thousands of Americans each year, until an effective vaccine was developed and widely used by the 1940s. Today, whooping cough primarily affects children too young to have completed the full course of vaccinations.

Infants are especially vulnerable because they are unprotected by vaccination until their first birthday. More than half of all infants with whooping cough develop severe complications and require hospitalization. Some do not survive. Children older than 10 and adults also are vulnerable because the strength of the pertussis vaccine fades over time.

At least nine babies have died from pertussis this year in the U.S., including an infant from Oakland County. The parents of the Michigan baby are now focused on raising public awareness of pertussis and the importance of building a circle of protection around our youngest and most vulnerable (check out their efforts at

In the news: Health officials urge whooping cough vaccinations

We all share a role in building a circle of protection. Here are a few ideas:

The simple act of getting a booster shot could save a life.

Protect infants and others at high risk by staying away from babies if you’ve got a cough of any kind.

Previous coverage

Vaccine gap costs Michigan $500 million a year

At MESSA, we’re stepping up outreach to our members, the public school community and the public to educate them about the risks to infants and the simple steps they can take to prevent tragedy. Our members work in schools and communities every day. Because they’re on the front lines working with kids and often have young families as well, public school employees can have an immediate and lasting impact on our efforts to encourage vaccination and save lives.

Pertussis attacks the lungs and causes severe respiratory distress. The incubation period for pertussis is generally between seven and 10 days, but can last more than a month. Initial symptoms include runny nose, sneezing, and a mild cough, which may seem like a typical cold.

In infants, the cough slowly worsens and eventually the patient experiences bouts of rapid coughing followed by the whooping sound that gives the disease its common name.

For adults and teens, whooping cough can cause months of severe hacking and coughing spells with pneumonia, cracked ribs, and other painful complications. For babies and others who aren’t vaccinated or fully protected, the complications can be far more serious.

People can spread whooping cough to infants even before they feel sick. They may not even know that their cough isn’t just the common cold.

Everyone should be vaccinated, unless they’ve had a dangerous reaction to a tetanus, diphtheria, or pertussis vaccine – or unless their physician advises against the vaccine due to other medical reasons.

Many people do not realize that a pertussis booster shot is recommended for everyone older than 10. If they’re not properly vaccinated already, pregnant women can provide some protection to their infants by getting the booster during the third trimester or late second trimester (after 20 weeks).

To review recommendations for routine vaccines for children and adults, consult your doctor or visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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