A couple of weeks ago, we weren’t sure whether Kaspar was sick or teething (until he popped a tooth). In the meantime, we found ourselves in the middle of something of a sick-baby sandwich—a new mom-experience that I’m sure will recur at some time (because, let's face it, kids are germ factories) and which might sound familiar to you. We’d spent time the week before with one baby friend-- I'll call him Baby Number One-- who was just coming off of a round of antibiotics after a cold and a sinus infection, but was feeling fine and, as we parents all agreed, was no longer contagious. Then, another baby friend of ours developed a cold just a day or two after hanging with Kaspar, who was by then acting kind of wonky himself (teething had begun). This other baby, who I'll call Baby Number Two, had also been to his doctor’s office for a well-visit a few days earlier, so it was possible that he’d caught something there. Over the next week, we all tended to our kids' symptoms and stayed in touch, loosely guessing at who’d caught what from whom so that we all had some sense of what to expect.
Baby Number One had, in fact, totally recovered from his cold and sinus infection. Kaspar’s symptoms eased up, too, save for a little bit of coughing on his copious amounts of saliva. Kaspar’s been sick once before, and I knew this time around that baby colds sound worse than they are, and can take a while to clear up. Kaspar was moving in the right direction—his symptoms were improving— so I wasn’t concerned. Baby Number Two (the baby who’d been to his well-visit and also got a cold), however, developed a fever and a bad cough; he probably hadn’t gotten his germs from Kaspar (which meant Kaspar might well have picked up some germs from him). His mom was concerned. Baby Number Two has not received any immunizations. Not knowing what he might have been exposed to, his mom took him back in to the doctor for a Pertussis— also known as whooping cough— test. The test came back positive.
Hearing this, I became mildly concerned (okay… I spun into kind of a tizzy), for our baby friend and for Kaspar, who’d likely been exposed to the Pertussis germs while they were incubating in his little pal. I knew that whooping cough can kill newborns (a number of babies in California have died from a recent outbreak—so scary and sad). Kaspar was definitely feeling better, but I didn’t want to mess around; a Google search (when will I learn?) indicated that whooping cough’s early symptoms are identical to a common cold's, which-- when it's whooping cough-- appears to clear up and then comes back in the form of coughing fits that disrupt breathing, damage lungs and otherwise make life miserable for little ones. Early treatment with antibiotics is the most effective, and it’d been over a week since Kaspar had potentially been exposed to the illness. We haven’t yet chosen a pediatrician in Austin (Kaspar’s next well-visit is still a month away), so I spent an afternoon calling all manner of pharmacy, doctor’s office and community resource listing trying to figure out how we could get a test done, quickly. The clock was ticking.
I called our pediatrician back in Brooklyn. I secretly hoped I could talk her into calling in a prescription for antibiotics to a local pharmacy so we could skip the wait time and just play it safe, but she had a different plan. She listened to my description of our sick-baby sandwich, listened to Kaspar’s (wet—a good thing) cough over the phone, asked about his symptoms and said that since Kaspar’s had two of the five Pertussis vaccinations, she didn’t think he would catch it, even if he had been exposed. She said that if he developed that characteristic “whoop”, he could go to a hospital and be treated effectively, but for now we could relax, and wait and see. We did just that, and Kaspar’s fine.
Kaspar’s friend, Baby Number Two, is also fine; although he’s not vaccinated, the Pertussis was caught early and the antibiotics did the trick. This scare, however, raised some interesting questions for me—and for my friend— around vaccinating and medicating in general.
I’d certainly read about the potential connections between immunizations and autism in children; this link, real or otherwise, is why some people choose not to vaccinate their kids. The list of shots a baby gets in his or her first year of life is long, and filled with the names of scary diseases. Somewhat daunted by the volume of conflicting information available on the subject, and by the very suggestion that I might knowingly put my child at risk by moving forward with a vaccination schedule, when the time came to do so I asked our amazing Brooklyn pediatrician (who always takes a low-to-no-intervention approach to baby colds and beyond) if she believed in any way— “if there is even the slightest hint of a possibility or suspicion in your mind”— that vaccinating Kaspar could cause him harm. She did not. She also assured us that the one vaccine that had been called into question (and later proven safe) wouldn’t come up for Kaspar until he was quite a bit bigger than just a few weeks old (he was pretty much brand new at the time). She also said that we could create a more leisurely vaccination schedule for Kaspar than the one that is typically followed; we’re allowing a little more time and space between vaccines (some people are concerned that the concentration of heavy metals in multiple vaccines overwhelms infants’ systems, and that administering the vaccines individually will sidestep that problem). This is why he’s had only two of the Pertussis doses as of yet. Still, those two were enough to significantly impact the course of action we needed to follow in the case of Pertussis exposure. While I’m not quite ready to be a pro-immunization poster mom, I will say that I was enormously relieved by the reminder that Kaspar had some level of protection against contracting Pertussis... and by the fact that we could skip taking him in to the doctor (germ metropolis), skip the part where he’d get a swab jammed up his nose, and skip the antibiotics, which also throw kids' systems off.
As for my mom friend, she wasn’t at all psyched about giving her baby antibiotics, and was definitely displeased that he’d caught Pertussis while on a regular well-visit. She opted not to vaccinate her child at all yet, and is thus duly responsible in not bringing her child into environments where he could become exposed to stuff his body can’t fight off (they don’t fly on airplanes, he’s not in day care, etc.). Still, he caught whooping cough, and that left her feeling conflicted and upset. As if that weren't enough, she had to call everyone her son had been around for the week or so preceding his diagnosis, which included a pregnant woman and another who went to visit her newborn nephew just a few days later, to tell them that her son had Pertussis. She said she felt like someone with an STD who had to call everyone she’d ever slept with to give them the head’s up (the pregnant woman, and the new aunt, were—understandably—not happy). She sounded exhausted.
The vaccine that’s been flagged (and reportedly reconfirmed as safe... I think it's MMR? I'll ask our Brooklyn ped again and let you all know) still awaits us, and I do still feel weird about letting someone shoot it into Kaspar’s fat little thigh. It’s helped, along the way, in moments like this, to have a pediatrician who maintains the same philosophy toward baby-health as we do (assumed healthy until proven otherwise), and who we really trust. We’ll hopefully find that pediatrician here in Austin, too. Meanwhile, the decisions around vaccination, medication, even sanitization (we wash Kaspar’s bottles in steaming hot water, but he also licks the soles of shoes. We break even, right?) are tough ones for parents to make—especially when you have a healthy kid who doesn’t urgently need any of this stuff-- and I must say that it’s not entirely clear to me what the best decisions actually are.
Are your kids vaccinated? Have you chosen to follow an alternative vaccination schedule, as we have, or even not to vaccinate at all? Are you uncomfortable making these decisions, too? How do you go about making them? Where’s your comfort zone?