When the Personal Really is Historical (and Scary!)

When the Personal Really is Historical (and Scary!)

So, I have pertussis. You may know it better as whooping cough. Believe me, the irony of a gender and medicine historian catching some sort of 19th century disease is not lost on me. You know, it’s hard enough being a graduate student, a GSI (Graduate Student Instructor), a wife, and a mother of two, but throw in a good old-fashioned Oregon Trail disease, and you’ve got yourself one heck of a semester.

You see, I’ve been sick for quite awhile now. All semester long I have been struggling to conquer this stubborn cold. I’ve tried NyQuil, Mucinex, Emergen-C, Robitussin, vegetarian Chicken Soup, a Neti Pot, lots of sleep – you name it. It just wouldn’t go away. With the prompting of my friends and family, I finally dragged myself into the Urgent Care last week to get some professional help. It’s a good thing I did too. By the time I sat down in the doctor’s office, I had finally begun the “whooping” stage of my illness (Whooping is the telltale sound a person with pertussis makes when they can’t catch their breath in between coughs). Three breathing treatments and five prescription drugs later, I am finally on the very slow road to recovery (The 5-day quarantine, on the other hand, has been a nice change of pace).

Whooping cough is not for wimps. All of the intense coughing fits have left me with bruised ribs and pulled muscles in my neck, not to mention the fact that I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in over two weeks. The antibiotics, steroids, inhalers, cough medicine, and nasal sprays have left me feeling disjointed and paradoxically jumpy and sleepy. In summary, whooping cough bites.

As a historian, however, I realize how lucky I am. Whooping cough is an extremely contagious disease and before a vaccine was available, it killed 5,000 to 10,000 people in the United States each year. Indeed, the disease has a long and storied history. Guillaume De Baillou first described pertussis in 1578, when a mysterious epidemic swept through Paris, but it was not until 1906 that Belgian scientists isolated the bacterium responsible for whooping cough, Bordetella pertussis.

There it is!

In 1939, American bacteriologists Pearl Kendrick and Grace Elderding (two women!!), produced the first successful vaccine to combat whooping cough. In 1948, the first combined DTP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) vaccines became available in the United States, and by 1976, reported cases of whooping cough dropped to a new record low of 1,010 annual cases (the high was 260,000 cases in 1934). By the mid-1990s, a safer, whole-cell vaccine replaced the original acellular version, which resulted in fewer adverse reactions. **

Pearl Kendrick and Grace Elderding (center)

So how did a disease that came close to eradication in the 1970s reemerge to infect yours truly? Turns out, whooping cough is making a big comeback. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that in 2010, whooping cough cases in California had increased by 418% over the previous year. So far this year, whooping cough outbreaks have been reported in 48 states and Washington, D.C. According to the CDC, “provisional counts indicate more than 32,000 cases through October 15, 2012, with 16 pertussis-related deaths reported during that same time period.” The majority of deaths occur among infants younger than 3 months of age.

So who or what is to blame for the rising tidal wave of whooping cough misery? Are the non-vaccinating, yuppie/hippie parents to blame? After all, the anti-vaccine movement among parents has been gaining momentum for over a decade now, ever since British doctor, Andrew Wakefield used faulty science to allege a link between immunization and autism. So many parents have now bought into the vaccine paranoia (no matter how much it has been discredited), that a recent edition of the medical journal Pediatrics reported that 1 in 10 parents are avoiding or delaying vaccines for their children because of safety concerns. And don’t even get me started on Jenny McCarthy or Michelle Bachman.

As much as I would love to blame celebrity crackpots for all of our problems, the answer is never that easy (darn it). Many doctors and public health officials point out that, while withholding vaccinations from our children certainly contributes to the problem, it is not the only driving engine behind increased pertussis cases in the United States. As a recent New York Times  article argues, even individuals who have been fully vaccinated against pertussis are not completely protected against the disease. The Times points to a new study by the Kaiser Permanente Vaccine Study Center in Oakland, CA , in which researchers have now documented that protection against pertussis eventually wanes after immunization, and , in fact, the chances of getting the disease rises by an average of 42 percent per year.

Great. I wish I would have known this before I actually contracted the disease.

The good news for all of you Nursing Clio readers is that you need not suffer the same miserable fate. Medical experts still agree that the pertussis vaccine remains the single most effective approach to illness prevention.  The CDC now recommends a pertussis-containing booster shot for teens and adults who have not had one in the last few years. Additionally, the government’s vaccine advisory panel is now urging every expectant mother in her last trimester to get vaccinated against pertussis.

So take it from me, your humble gender and medicine historian – go out and get vaccinated! We are so fortunate that we live in the era of modern medicine. Things could be a whole lot worse, you know. We could be stuck out on the Oregon Trail with a broken wagon wheel and three kids with dysentery.

**All statistics and historical dates were compiled using two fabulous online resources:

The History of Vaccines: A Project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

(And for those of you who’ve never had the pleasure of playing the Oregon Trail Game, here it is.)

Jacqueline Antonovich is the creator and co-founder of Nursing Clio and served as executive editor from 2012 to 2021. She is an Assistant Professor of History at Muhlenberg College. Her current research focuses on women physicians, race, gender, and medical imperialism in the American West. Jacqueline received her PhD from the University of Michigan in 2018.