They were novices, but doing a remarkably fine job handling a newborn. The young parents were in the office for their 5-day-old's well-baby checkup -- the first of many. After examining the healthy little girl and going through feeding schedules, pooping patterns and parental concerns, I had a question of my own.
"Did you each get your whooping cough vaccine and this year's flu shot?" I asked the couple. Mom nodded enthusiastically. She had already been given a flu shot during this pregnancy, and received the whooping cough shot the day after delivery.
I next turned my attention to dad, who paled visibly. After the briefest moment of hesitation, the father said that he too would be getting the vaccines to protect his little girl from infection. Good man, I thought. Taking one -- or in this case, two -- for the team.
Parental flu shot recommendations are not new and for quite a few years flu shots have been advised for all individuals 6 months of age and up. Flu hits the very young very hard, with infected children under 2 years of age facing higher rates of severe flu-related complications. Vaccination makes it less likely that parents will bring influenza home from work and other public gatherings, keeping infants healthier.
Whooping cough vaccination for parents and caregivers is also not a new concept. Whooping cough or pertussis is a bacterial respiratory disease shared through coughing and sneezing. Whooping cough is descriptively known as "the cough of 100 days," so you get the idea that it's not a pleasant experience for its adult victims.
While whooping cough generally causes moderate symptoms in grown-ups, the disease process can be quite alarming in tiny infants, in some cases causing apnea (pauses in breathing) and blue episodes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that among infants less than a year old who contract pertussis, more than half will be hospitalized, with one or two fatalities out of every 100 of those hospitalized.
The CDC now recommends that all pregnant women be immunized with the Tdap vaccine during each pregnancy, regardless of history of immunization, and ideally at 27 through 36 weeks of pregnancy.
Vaccinated mothers-to-be will receive disease protection themselves, making protective pertussis antibodies, which are also transferred across the placenta to the baby.
These recommendations make sense for two reasons: (1) infant pertussis immunization doesn't start until the two-month checkup and the initial vaccine series is not completed until 18 months of age, and (2) mothers are found to be the source of infection in 30 percent to 40 percent of infant whooping cough cases.
Taken as a group, household members are responsible for bringing whooping cough home to infant relatives in about 80 percent of cases. The CDC therefore recommends protecting or "cocooning" an infant from whooping cough by having both parents, as well as older siblings, grandparents and other caregivers receive the pertussis vaccine at least two weeks before any expected contact with the baby. With less than 10 percent of adults up-to-date on their Tdap shots, there's still plenty of work to do.
• Dr. Helen Minciotti is a mother of five and a pediatrician with a practice in Schaumburg. She formerly chaired the Department of Pediatrics at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.