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Gellar: What we can do to help protect our babies

By Sarah Michelle Gellar, Special to CNN
updated 9:22 AM EDT, Wed June 12, 2013
The CDC recommends adults who expect to have close contact with a baby be vaccinated for pertussis.
The CDC recommends adults who expect to have close contact with a baby be vaccinated for pertussis.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A 2012 pertussis outbreak was one of the largest in about 50 years
  • Parents, grandparents and others should receive a Tdap vaccine booster
  • Estimates indicate there may be more than 3 million adult and adolescent cases yearly

Editor's note: Emmy Award-winning actress Sarah Michelle Gellar is campaign ambassador for the National Sounds of Pertussis campaign and a mother of two.

(CNN) -- In 2012, America experienced one of the largest outbreaks of reported pertussis cases in approximately 50 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Also known as whooping cough, pertussis is a highly contagious and often serious disease, especially in young children.

In adolescents and adults, it usually presents as a severe cough that may last for weeks or even months and the milder form is often mistaken for the common cold or bronchitis and can be easily spread, the CDC says.

But in babies, pertussis can be potentially fatal.

Sarah Michelle Gellar
Sarah Michelle Gellar

Severe pertussis usually occurs in babies and young children, who are at higher risk for pertussis-related complications.

Infants are particularly vulnerable against pertussis because they don't begin receiving their own immunizations until they are 2 months old. They might not be protected until they've had at least three doses of an infant pertussis vaccine.

When it could be determined how an infant caught pertussis, family members were responsible for spreading the disease to the baby in up to 80% of cases, researchers found. More specifically, parents were responsible up to 50% of the time.

After I learned that more than 83% of pertussis deaths occurred in infants younger than 12 months, I knew I wanted to take action.

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A tiny life lost to whooping cough

I didn't think twice when Sanofi Pasteur and March of Dimes asked me to join the Sounds of Pertussis Campaign to help raise awareness about the potential dangers of pertussis and the importance of adult tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis (Tdap) vaccination.

As national campaign ambassador, I am helping raise awareness about pertussis in an effort to educate parents, grandparents, caregivers and others in close contact with infants about the importance of getting vaccinated with an adult Tdap vaccine to help protect themselves and to help stop the spread of the disease to infants.

While I have been fortunate that my family has not been directly affected by pertussis, estimates indicate that there may be as many as 800,000 to 3.3 million adult and adolescent cases of pertussis in the United States in any given year.

And more than half of babies younger than 1 who get the disease must be hospitalized, the CDC says. My heart goes out to those parents who have experienced the devastation of having a child affected by this potentially fatal disease.

Before my son Rocky was born in September, I did my own research to make sure I was doing everything I could to help protect my health and the health of my family.

When I learned the statistics surrounding pertussis, I not only made sure I was vaccinated, but I asked my friends and family to join me in getting the adult vaccine. I wanted to make sure I was doing everything I could to help protect myself and to help stop the spread of pertussis to my children.

Whooping cough vaccine recommended for all pregnant women

The CDC recommends adults, especially those in contact with an infant, receive a single dose of the Tdap vaccine because immunity from early childhood pertussis vaccinations wears off over time. After about five to 10 years, adults are left susceptible to the disease, which they can then transmit to others.

At the end of the day, our children are the greatest gift we can receive. Although pertussis may be on the rise nationwide, there are simple steps you can take as an adult to help protect yourself and to help stop the spread of the disease to infants. This includes making sure everyone who comes in contact with your baby -- including yourself -- is up to date on their vaccinations.

Please visit the Sounds of Pertussis site to learn more about pertussis and the Sounds of Pertussis Campaign. There, you can access the campaign's new Facebook application, the Breathing Room, which allows parents to send a brief message to family and friends in their Facebook network asking them to make the pledge to be vaccinated against pertussis.

The responsibility is ours as adults to help protect the babies in our lives.

2010: 10 infants die in California whooping cough outbreak

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