In November 2004, my 15-year-old daughter Samantha was helping me prepare for the holidays. Everyone was coming home for Thanksgiving dinner. It was so close you could almost smell the turkey. Unfortunately, all we could hear was Samantha’s hacking cough. It was constant and just wouldn’t go away. It went on for weeks. Night after night, I would stay up listening to my poor daughter’s coughing fits. Her chest hurt and she had trouble breathing. Then she would end up vomiting. Eating increased the chances of getting sick, so she didn’t do much of that either. It just didn’t seem like a normal cough.
A few days before Thanksgiving, I brought Samantha to the doctor. He pounded on her sinuses and checked her ears. When the examination was over, he said she had a sinus infection and gave her an antibiotic.
Samantha started to feel better just in time for Thanksgiving dinner. But right after the holiday weekend, her cough came back, even worse than before. We went back to the pediatrician. This time he tested her for pertussis, commonly called whooping cough. There were already 1 or 2 cases in her high school, and it turned out she had it, too. He explained that the pertussis vaccine given to babies wears off over time, leaving teenagers unprotected. I had no idea how serious pertussis was until the doctor said Samantha couldn’t leave the house for 5 days because pertussis is so contagious. Missing school for a week may have seemed great at first, but as Samantha found it, this was no vacation. It was like being grounded without doing anything wrong. She was bored, sick, and absolutely miserable.
After her quarantine, Samantha went back to school, despite the difficulties her condition created. Simple things that she took for granted, like going up and down the stairs, became a real chore. Activities that used to be fun, like gym class, became a struggle to breathe.
Samantha’s illness not only impacted her life, but mine as well. After she went back to school, I got a call from my community’s public health nurse. She told me that because I also had a cough I may have pertussis and I must leave the bank that I worked in immediately and not come back for 5 days. Pertussis is a disease that can spread very quickly. Since my job required direct contact with the public, I would put my customers at risk of contracting the disease by staying at work.
The nurse also told me that anyone Samantha had contact with since the coughing began must be notified and given antibiotics, including classmates (students who sat in front of, behind, and to the left and right of Samantha), other friends (especially those who might have been pregnant), and all our relatives who came over for Thanksgiving.
Eventually, everyone we had contact with since Thanksgiving was on antibiotics. As it turned out, 48 students at Ottumwa High School tested positive for pertussis between mid-November and New Year’s Day. Who could have imagined this would happen in our small Iowa town, in this day and age? The doctor told us pertussis vaccines for teenagers are now available. If there had been a vaccine available for adolescents in 2004, we could have avoided all this trouble. Now that adolescent vaccines are available, pertussis can become a thing of the past.
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