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State health officials confirm pertussis-related infant death

Minnesota Department of Health Photo: KSTP
Minnesota Department of Health

Updated: January 08, 2020 07:10 PM

Officials with the Minnesota Department of Health report an infant death related to pertussis. 

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According to MDH, the infant was diagnosed with pertussis in August and died in November. The last pediatric death related to pertussis in the state occurred in 2013.

Pertussis is better known as whooping cough. 

MDH won’t say whether the deceased infant’s mother had been vaccinated during pregnancy. 

The tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis (Tdap) vaccine is recommended during the third trimester of each pregnancy, according to MDH.

“It’s a really good way to make sure that infant is protected until they get those first three shots they need,” said Cynthia Kenyon, an MDH epidemiologist supervisor. “They don’t get that full series until 6 months of age.”

Kenyon told us when pregnant mothers get vaccinated, they pass on protective antibodies to their baby.

“What we’ve found is that it’s actually really effective at preventing infants from getting pertussis,” said Kenyon. “It’s actually more effective than if mom doesn’t get the vaccine and everyone else does in the household.”

MDH officials say anyone can get pertussis; however, it is more severe for infants. MDH data shows there were 41 cases of pertussis in infants less than 6 months old in Minnesota in 2018 and 2019. Of those cases, 44% of the mothers had received the Tdap vaccine during pregnancy.

Preliminary data shows there were 25 cases of pertussis in infants less than 6 months old in 2019 alone. Of those, eight infants were hospitalized.

MDH said two of those hospitalized infants had severe cases.

"We’re missing opportunities to vaccinate during pregnancy and protect vulnerable infants from a serious disease," said Kristin Ehresmann, the MDH's director of infectious disease.

A number of the infants who are infected with the disease are infected by older siblings, parents or caregivers who may not know they have the disease because symptoms can be less severe in adolescents and adults. 

“Often adults, they’ll just wait out a cough illness,” said Kenyon. “It’s important to take that cough illness seriously, especially if it’s getting worse and not better.”

Shelley Leon, a mother from St. Michael, wants people to understand how serious the illness is. Her son was diagnosed with pertussis just weeks after being born in March 2019.

He is now a 10 month old, healthy baby. 

“He acts like he didn’t go through anything,” she said.

Shelley, however, will never forget his traumatic start to life.

“It was super hard for doctors to come in and tell us, ‘your baby might not make it, he’s that sick, he might die,’” she said.

According to Shelley, her son started coughing in early April. They initially believed it was his first cold. They took him to the doctor who determined his lungs were clear. Just a few days later he had a severe coughing fit.

“He turned blue around his lips from coughing so hard,” she said. “He was seen again by his pediatrician.”

The pediatrician sent them to the hospital.

“I think if we wouldn't have taken him that day, we may not be here with him,” she said.

Daniel spent 173 days in the hospital. His father Albert Leon told us the hardest part was not being able to hold his son for months.

“We just want people to know, this is what could possibly happen,” he said. “If you come in contact with an infant, the elderly, they could end up in the hospital. They could end up on life support.”

They ask people who aren’t feeling well to just stay home. They’re also advocating for the vaccination.

“I definitely would’ve asked for it, if I had known,” said Shelley Leon.

MDH says other ways to prevent the spread of pertussis include:

•    Avoiding contact with those who are ill.
•    Washing hands.
•    Staying home if sick.
•    Covering mouth when coughing.

There are currently two vaccines that can be administered to prevent pertussis.

  • Avoiding contact with those who are ill.
  • Washing hands.
  • Staying home if sick.
  • Covering mouth when coughing.

There are currently two vaccines that can be administered to prevent pertussis.

For more information on the disease, click here.

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