How Vaccines Work

Childhood Vaccinations

The Problem with Pertussis

Pertussis, better known to many as whooping cough, is currently the only vaccine-preventable disease on the increase in the United States. Most infants receive the vaccine, but it wears off by adolescence. Many teens and parents aren't aware that middle-school-age children should receive a booster vaccine to protect themselves and others.

While teens and adults can catch and suffer from the disease, it's often fatal to the very young and very old. Babies receive the vaccine in three doses, so they aren't protected completely from the disease for many months. According to the CDC, 91 percent of infant deaths from pertussis (from 2001 to 2003) occurred in babies under 6 months old. The elderly and people with poor immune systems are also at elevated risk because their immune systems are much weaker.

"The point is that if you are around an elderly person or a baby you really need to have this shot," says Joyce Allers, R.N., of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. "We as a society have to protect our more fragile members. They [people whose children are not up-to-date on vaccines] are taking their child out in public where they may be exposing a grandfather recovering from cancer to a potentially deadly disease."

Pertussis is often misdiagnosed because it shares symptoms with other common respiratory ailments. Symptoms include a severe cough that can last eight weeks or more, momentary loss of consciousness, low-grade fever and a runny nose.

Early childhood - From age 18 months to 6 years, children receive subsequent vaccinations of HepB, DTaP, IPV, MMR and varicella. This is to ensure maximum protection against the diseases.

Later childhood/adolescence - After age 6, children don't have too many shots to worry about until adolescence. Around age 11 they should get the Tdap vaccine to protect against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis because the vaccine they received as an infant has worn off (see sidebar below for more info). The following are also recommended at age 11 or 12:

  • HPV (human papillomavirus) - This three-dose shot is one of the latest and greatest in the vaccine industry. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical and genital warts. HPV is usually symptom-free, so women become aware of the infection only when they have a positive Pap smear. Since the vaccine is very new it's also recommended for women up to age 26 who have not already received it.
  • MCV4 (meningococal) - The age for this vaccine has recently been moved up to 11. The disease occurs when the spinal fluid and fluid around the brain become infected. The symptoms of meningitis are high fever, headache and a very stiff neck. It can be viral or bacterial (bacterial is the most severe) and is sometimes contagious, depending on the bacteria. This is why middle- and high-school students, as well as college students living in dormitories, are recommended to get the shot.

Adults have to get shots, too. Find out about them on the next page.