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Pertussis: A young mother’s story

Laura Huber shares her story on Pertussis

The birth of her boys, Elliot and Abe, on Dec. 6, 2004, was an early Christmas gift for Laura Huber and her young family.

Hours after the delivery, Huber developed a cough which was thought to be normal since she had spent several weeks on bed rest prior to delivery. What she didn't know was that she had contracted pertussis.

Thirty- six days later, one of her newborn sons died because of his complications from pertussis.

The potentially life-saving pertussis booster was made available just a few months after her son's death and today Huber shares how important having a pertussis vaccination is.

"Sharing this message gives me a sense of purpose sometimes," Huber said. "As lousy as the circumstances were, there's something good that can come of what happened."

Pertussis, also called whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory-tract infection. Jeffrey Lamont, M.D., a pediatrician at Marshfield Clinic Weston Center, describes pertussis as a "nasty disease" that is extremely contagious. A person diagnosed with pertussis must take medication for five days before no longer being contagious. 

The disease can be deceiving.

"Pertussis doesn't start with a severe cough. It just seems like a cold at first, a cold that doesn't go away," Dr. Lamont said.

People with pertussis usually spread it by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others who then breathe in the pertussis bacteria. Parents, siblings or caregivers who might not know they have pertussis can infect infants. Symptoms of pertussis usually develop within seven to 10 days after being exposed, but sometimes not for as long as six weeks.

A growing family

Huber gave birth to Abraham, 6 pounds, and Elliot 3.5 pounds. They joined older brother Benjamin and her husband, Scott.

"It was the best Christmas gift anyone could ask for," Huber said, recalling the events from her rural home in the town of Wood, located between Marshfield and Wisconsin Rapids. "We had two new beautiful children. We were on top of the world. Elliot spent his first 10 days in neonatal intensive care unit, growing stronger and healthier, but was home for Christmas."

Meanwhile, Huber's cough got worse, requiring a Christmas Eve visit to an urgent care center. A doctor prescribed antibiotics and sent her home. A Wood County public health nurse visited her a few days later and suggested she might have whooping cough.

On New Year's Eve, Huber noticed Abe's lips were blue and rushed him to a hospital. Huber insisted Abe be tested for pertussis. Days later, test results confirmed her fears. Abe was quarantined at the hospital. His immediate family couldn't visit him for five days while they took antibiotics.

On Jan. 11, 2005, Abe lost his battle with pertussis.

"The worst part is that I'm pretty sure he got it from me," Huber said. "I don't know where it came from. I was never tested. I never knew anyone with pertussis."

Huber and her son had pertussis during one of Wisconsin's largest outbreaks of the illness. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported more than 5,600 cases in the state in 2005. Pertussis cases were relatively low until 2012 when more than 6,400 cases were reported. Providers frequently saw pertussis cases again in 2013.

Pertussis was a widespread and dreaded childhood disease in the pre-vaccine era. The whole-cell pertussis vaccine was combined with vaccines against tetanus and diphtheria (DTP) in the mid-1940s and was routinely used across the U.S. Pertussis rates plunged and stayed low after a new vaccine for diphtheria-tetanus-acellular pertussis (DtaP) became available in 1991.

Pertussis vaccine effectiveness waned by the early 2000s, but no booster vaccinations were available for the disease at the time. The Food and Drug Administration licensed new vaccines for use in adolescents and adults in 2005 to protect against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis.

Taking a stand

Huber wasn't eager to be vocal about her family tragedy until two events led her to speak up. She was prompted to share her story with local newspapers in the spring of 2005 after her sister-in-law overheard a parent at an elementary school basketball game comment that her daughter was playing despite having whooping cough.

The second was a request in the spring of 2012 from the Wood County Public Health Department to serve on a panel at a community forum and to create a video advocating for pertussis vaccinations. 

The video, which she recorded at home in front of her computer, is on YouTube and was shared by health care professionals. By chance, a nurse at a hospital in southern Wisconsin showed Huber's nephew the video after his wife gave birth.

Vaccinations are important for an individual's health, as well as the health of a community, Dr. Lamont said. Infants, the elderly and some people with certain specific medical conditions may not be able to receive or respond to vaccination, and need to be protected by the "herd immunity" provided by a vaccinated community.

"The essence of a community is to better accomplish things that can't be accomplished individually," Dr. Lamont said. "Working together for the common good and to best meet needs of individual community members involves every member of the community"

Today, the Hubers' children are growing up fast. Ben is 11, Elliot, 9, and Abby, 7. Huber isn't a rah-rah type of person, but she shares her experience with others to protect her community – especially children – from a largely preventable illness.

"I'm grateful to tell my story, but it brings up those emotions again," Huber said. "I'm not out there to be a bully. I just want people to know what the consequences could be if you don't get vaccinations. There are real consequences for children and babies who don't have strong immune systems."

Visit to see Laura's Huber's video.