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Fighting pertussis

Sure hope these folks can make a lot of progress in their work.

Of the more than 30,000 children hospitalized with pertussis in the United States each year, 10 to 20 will die. Worldwide, pertussis infects more than 16 million and causes nearly 200,000 deaths a year.

“We need to come up with some therapeutic options,” [Dr. Mary Healy, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine] said. “We have very little to offer.”

That soon could change. Last month, a research team led by scientists from the University of Texas at Austin reported progress developing antibodies that could be used to combat pertussis infections in those too young to be vaccinated.

The work was led by Jessica Maynard, an associate professor of chemical engineering at UT, who previously had worked on an Ebola treatment

Pertussis is a bacterial infection that colonizes the lungs and secretes about 20 disease-causing compounds and toxins.

“We can’t really agree on which of them are the most important,” Maynard said. “But we think it’s the pertussis toxin, because it’s directly responsible for the increase in your white blood cell count.”

Those cells flood into the blood and can clog the lungs and other organs. Antibiotics can help clear the bacteria, but they do not affect the toxins that are doing all the damage. Researchers previously tried pulling various antibodies from vaccinated people and using those to treat infants, with little success.

Maynard’s team decided to focus on two antibodies that would bind tightly to the pertussis toxin and deactivate it. They cloned the antibodies to deliver them to infants in massive amounts.

“We’re really trying to go after the symptoms,” Maynard said.

In laboratory tests, the antibodies protected mice from being infected with pertussis, much like a vaccine. The researchers also tested the antibodies as a treatment in baboons that were sick with pertussis. The antibodies did not clear the bacteria, but they lowered white blood cell counts, speeding recovery.

[…]

Widespread vaccination still is the key strategy in the United States for protecting infants.

The current vaccine is effective but imperfect. Immunity tends to wane after three years. And since the disease is less severe in older children and adults, siblings or parents of infants could be infected and not know it. They unknowingly can pass on the infection to vulnerable babies.

Public health experts advocate a strategy called cocooning, in which adults and adolescents who will be in contact with a baby get vaccinated at least two weeks earlier.

“Probably the most important thing you can do is vaccinate a pregnant woman in the third trimester of pregnancy,” Healy said. “The theory then is they won’t get pertussis and give it to the baby.”

You know how I feel about vaccinations. It’s more than a little scary to realize that I could have been a carrier and passed it on to one of my kids before they were old enough to be immunized. And while pertussis may be less severe in adults than in kids, it can still be really, really awful. So please, make sure your vaccinations are up to date. And send some happy thoughts to Dr. Maynard and her team.

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