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New York State law could prevent spread of whooping cough

Requires hospitals recommend vaccine to new parents

Dr. Shetal Shah vaccinates Assemblyman Steve Englebright against pertussis. Photo by Matt Calamia

August 02, 2012 | 09:50 AM
New legislation requires hospitals with newborn nurseries throughout the state to recommend parents and caregivers receive vaccines for pertussis — commonly known as whooping cough — as the disease has made a resurgence in recent decades.

The legislation, passed in July, was sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) and Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) and signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on July 18. It takes effect Jan. 18, 2013.

The legislators announced the law Tuesday at Stony Brook University Hospital with Dr. Shetal Shah, a neonatologist working at Stony Brook Long Island Children's Hospital who has been a leading advocate for requiring hospitals to inform new parents about the contagious disease and its vaccine. Stony Brook has been offering the vaccine for free for two years, though the new law does not require all hospitals to offer it free of charge.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pertussis has similar symptoms to the common cold, including a runny nose or congestion, sneezing and a possible mild cough or fever. After one or two weeks, though, severe coughing can begin, which could lead to coughing fits for several weeks. Those fits can create a loud inhale with "whooping" sounds, which is how the disease got its nickname.

Dr. Shetal Shah vaccinates Jesse Atkins, who has a newborn son, against pertussis Tuesday as Sen. Kemp Hannon and Assemblyman Steve Englebright look on. Photo by Matt Calamia
Dr. Shah said children are recommended to receive the vaccine in five doses throughout their childhood, beginning at age two months, with the final shot between ages four and six. Another booster shot is recommended at age 11.

"What happens over time is the immunization … can wane, which means parents themselves" can transmit the disease to their young children, Dr. Shah said. He added that 80 percent of all child diagnoses of pertussis can be traced to a parent or caregiver.

The law only mandates that hospitals recommend the vaccine to parents, and does not require the parents to receive it. Dr. Shah said it would be up to lawmakers to make it required in the future, if they wished.

"Right now, we're offering the vaccine," Dr. Shah said. "Once parents are counseled about the importance of pertussis, our data has shown that they're highly receptive to getting vaccinated, and then we can see what happens to the rate of pertussis in infants in New York state. If they're high, we can always reassess."

Englebright praised Dr. Shah's work in getting the message out to officials across the state. He said Dr. Shah approached him in January to tell him whooping cough is still an issue in New York. "There was a need to get the information out and to let the caregivers and parents know that they could do something in a preventative way," Englebright said.

SBU President Sam Stanley said pertussis was a major threat to infants and young children in the 1940s, but declined to about 1,000 national cases per year in the 1970s. Stanley, who was a doctor of infectious disease, said whooping cough resurged in the 1980s and has hung around ever since.

According to the New York State Department of Health, as of July 18 there have been 970 cases in New York in 2012, up from 931 cases in all of 2011. In 2010, there were 722 cases, and just 265 in 2009.

Dr. Sharon Nachman, director of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the hospital, said whooping cough can often lead to other diseases in infants, including pneumonia and encephalitis, which is an inflammation of the brain.

"We want to prevent the cough, the infection and all of the consequences of this infection," Dr. Nachman said. She attributed a possible reason for the resurgence of the disease to under-vaccination in adults and children. "We have to protect both the infants and the children and the adults from this disease."

East Patchogue residents Jesse Atkins and his wife, Danielle, gave birth to their son, Jesse, on July 26. The new father received his vaccine on Tuesday, and said he would have gotten the vaccine even if the hospital didn't recommend it.

"I did a lot of research on health care, especially for the child," Atkins said. "You just want to be as preventative as you can."

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