Although it’s not as common as it was 50 years ago, pertussis - or whooping cough, as it’s commonly known - has  made a bit of a comeback.

In 2012 there were over 1,400 cases in New Brunswick – the highest number of reported cases in the last 40 years.

Now, the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology at the IWK Health Centre is heading up a nationwide study with a goal of protecting newborn babies from the respiratory infection.

Callie Quinlan took part in the study while she was pregnant with her now four-month-old son Camaren. Quinlan says she heard about the project in a pre-natal class.

“I didn’t really know much about the whooping cough but then I read about it and decided it was probably something we should do for him,” she says.

Some participants received a vaccine with whooping cough protection as part of the study while others received a vaccine without it.

Quinlan doesn’t know which one she received during her pregnancy but she and Camaren return every two months for a follow-up.

“Each visit they do some measurements, some weighing, vaccinations and some bloodwork on both of us, actually,” she says.

Mothers provide all kinds of antibodies to their unborn babies, protecting them in their first few months of life. Principal investigator Dr. Scott Halperin hopes to achieve the same effect by administering the whooping cough vaccine during pregnancy.

“What we’re doing with this study is giving the whooping cough vaccine to really make sure they have high levels of antibodies against that particular infection, because of that really high-risk period in newborns,” says Halperin.

Babies aren’t immunized against whopping cough until two months of age, making newborns particularly susceptible.

The respiratory infection causes severe coughing, often lasting for up to three months. For small bodies, it can be fatal.

“They have very small airways and when they get the infection they actually get an overwhelming pneumonia from it so their lungs can get totally infected with whooping cough,” says Halperin.

The IWK enrolled the first 50 women in the nationwide study and, halfway through, the findings look promising.

“The women did develop very high levels of antibodies against whooping cough and they passed those antibody levels to their infants in very nice high levels,” says Halperin.

The United States and United Kingdom routinely gives the vaccine to pregnant women, in part based on the preliminary results of the IWK study.

Halperin hopes positive results will also make whooping cough protection a reality for all Canadian newborns in the future.


The IWK is seeking more participants. Contact Pam Publicover-Brouwer at 902-470-3921 for more information.