Babies Too Young For Vaccines Are At High Risk During Outbreaks

A mother recounts losing her 2-month-old son to whooping cough. She has a sharp message for parents who don't vaccinate: "You could kill somebody’s baby."

As the measles outbreak rages on, some voices in the anti-vaccine movement are focusing on the mildness of the measles. Some argue that it's a benign infection, while others have gone so far as to say that kids have "the right" to catch the bug.

But to Kathryn Riffenburg, a mother of three in Chicopee, Massachusetts, the measles outbreak isn't about the measles. It's about babies. Three years ago, Riffenburg lost her 2-month-old son, Brady, to pertussis (also known as whooping cough), a disease that deals a harsh blow to the weak lungs of infants. Brady was one of the 20 who died during the 2012 pertussis outbreak. The majority of these victims were babies younger than 3 months.

"I just don't understand why some parents choose not to vaccinate," Riffenburg told BuzzFeed News. "You could kill somebody's baby. I don't like using that [line] all the time, but now it's getting to the point where I have to say that."

Public health experts agree. While pertussis and measles are entirely different infections, babies are at high risk in any disease outbreak.

"While the circumstances are quite different, infants are definitely a particularly vulnerable population," Dr. James Cherry, a professor of pediatrics at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, told BuzzFeed News. "These young babies — it's hard to know what to do. We need to find ways to protect them."

Last Saturday, for example, a baby boy in Los Angeles caught the measles, leading to a quarantine of 14 other infants under the age of 1 who attended his daycare. On Thursday, five babies at a suburban Chicago day care were diagnosed with measles. The first measles vaccine is typically given at 12 to 15 months, so until then babies rely on the immunity of those around them.

It's unclear how measles may continue to spread among infants in the current outbreak. But there's no question that they are at very high risk: 90% of babies under the age of 1 who come into contact with the measles virus will catch the disease. During the last big measles outbreak, in 1989 to 1991, measles rates in babies were almost twice as high as any other age group. Because of this, more and more pediatricians are rejecting unvaccinated patients in order to protect the babies (and other people with weak immune systems) sitting in their waiting rooms.

When young babies get the measles, they develop the characteristic rash and fever. They also cough and have muscle pains, and have trouble sleeping. In rare cases, measles leads to complications such as diarrhea and pneumonia, and, in very rare cases, death.

With pertussis, infected infants are in even more danger, with half requiring a hospital visit. Of those, 67% will have slowed breathing, 25% will get a lung infection, and 2% will die.

Kathryn's son, Brady, was born chubby and healthy on Nov. 20, 2011. A month later, he went to his sister's preschool concert and met Santa Claus.

Within a week or two, Brady developed what seemed like a cold. Riffenburg and her husband, John, didn't get too worried until the night of Jan. 7, when Brady developed a 104-degree fever.

They took Brady to the emergency room, where doctors tested him for a few common infant viruses. But all came back negative. Meanwhile, his symptoms got worse. His breathing became so labored that doctors gave him asthma meds. He started eating less and vomiting more. On Jan. 16, just a few weeks after he started getting sick, Brady was admitted into the hospital. Eleven days later, tubes protruding from his tiny body, he died.

To Kathryn, whooping cough was a disease of the past. More than 200,000 annual cases of whooping cough were reported just before the vaccine was developed in the 1940s. By the 1980s, this number was down to fewer than 3,000 cases a year.

Since then, the numbers have been steadily rising — up to 28,000 in 2013. The reasons are unknown, though likely tied to people refusing the vaccine. Just as with measles, pockets of unvaccinated people trigger outbreaks.

For awhile, Kathryn said, she couldn't help running the scenarios through her head of who had infected Brady. "You always think, who could it have been? It's always in the back of your mind."

She's channeled her anger by getting involved with the vaccine advocacy group Every Child by Two. But the current measles outbreak has made her feel the need to share Brady's story more widely.

"Now measles is spreading like wildfire, and I just don't understand why some parents choose not to vaccinate," Kathryn said. "We shouldn't see children dying from these diseases that people haven't really been dying from in over 50 years."

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