Every Sunday, four-time NASCAR cup champion, Jeff Gordon, 41, races to be the first one to the checkered flag. But when he’s not battling for position on the track, Gordon, the father (with wife, Ingrid) of two young children ages 5 and 2, is racing to protect young children across the country from pertussis.
Commonly known as whooping cough, pertussis is a highly contagious respiratory disease. In addition to the distinct cough, patients often have trouble breathing. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), pertussis most commonly attacks infants and young children, and can be fatal. The CDC says more than 41,000 cases of whooping cough were reported in 2012; 18 people died from the preventable disease.
“My wife and I have two young children, and it’s amazing how life changes when you have children,” says Gordon. “When we had Ella 5 ½ years ago, we were shocked to learn we were putting her health at risk.”
Gordon says he and his wife were like most first time parents. “We wanted to know everything we could about keeping our child healthy.”
But what they didn’t know was that the pertussis immunizations they had as children had worn off. “We were shocked to find out after she was born that it was too late and that we were putting her at risk because our boosters had worn off.”
Before their son was born, Gordon and his wife both received pertussis booster immunizations. “We weren’t going to take any risks,” says Gordon.
The CDC says adult vaccination is one of the most effective ways of preventing the spread of the highly contagious disease.
Not only were Gordon and his wife immunized, they spread the word. “We realized not only did we know very little about pertussis, but that most of our friends and family knew very little, too.”
“Our nanny had her pertussis immunization updated and so did our parents. As we got involved with the March of Dimes “Sounds of Pertussis” campaign and learned more about the disease, we realized that the extended family and caregivers of a baby can also put a child at risk,” says Gordon.
“Just like we tell people to wash their hands around a new baby or we make sure top protect them with car seats, it’s important to for parents and caregivers to realize they need to be up to date on vaccines to prevent the spread of serious and potentially life-threatening diseases.”
Gordon admits it can be awkward to ask grandparents to get a pertussis booster. But says it’s a conversation that needs to happen.
“You can prepare grandparents early on, when you find out you’re pregnant,” he says.
And don’t worry about backlash.
“When you have a newborn, as a parent, you immediately go into full-blown protection mode. And people might think you’re overreacting with washing hands and other safety precautions, or someone might think ‘they’re one of those parents.’ But you shouldn’t take any preventable risk with your baby’s health.”
The CDC says most babies and young children who develop pertussis are infected by their parents, older siblings, and caregivers. That’s because when people with pertussis cough or sneeze, the germs become airborne and are then breathed in by another person.
Pertussis typically starts like a cold; patients experience a runny nose or congestion, sneezing, and a mild cough that over time (1 to 2 weeks) turns into severe coughing. It can involve a series of coughing fits that continues for weeks and can also cause violent and rapid coughing. Many patients cough to the point of not having any air in their lungs and are forced to inhale with a loud "whooping" sound.
The CDC says pertussis is most severe for babies; about half of infants younger than one year of age who get the disease need treatment in the hospital. About 1 in 4 hospitalized infants with pertussis get pneumonia, and about two thirds will have slowed or stopped breathing.
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