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Alberta baby's whooping cough death renews health calls for vaccinations

LETHBRIDGE, Alta. - The grieving family of a baby girl who died after contracting whooping cough came forward Thursday to try to prevent a similar death.

One-month-old Harper Whitehead died at Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary last month from complications caused by pertussis.

Pertussis is a highly contagious bacterial disease. It leads to severe coughing that causes children to make a distinctive whooping sound as they gasp for breath. In rare cases it can be fatal.

Babies under three months of age have little, if any, immunity to the cough, but cannot be vaccinated against it until they are older. Infants less than six months old represent almost 90 per cent of all pertussis deaths.

In March, Alberta Health Services declared an outbreak in southern Alberta, where there have been 42 reported cases so far this year. Typically, one to three cases of pertussis are reported in the region every year.

Dr. David Strong, acting medical health officer for the region, says it's important that anyone caring for babies be immunized.

Family spokeswoman Dani Whitehead, Harper's aunt, told a news conference her niece didn't have to die.

"We as a family aren't looking for attention from this tragic event, but (want) to make people aware that this is a real disease," she said.

"This, and other diseases like it, can be prevented by families being immunized. We hope that by coming forward and sharing our story we can encourage people to get immunized, so we can help prevent this tragedy from happening to another family."

Harper was a healthy baby just under eight pounds when she got sick.

"Over the next two weeks, Harper underwent a series of tests, one of which came back positive for pertussis," Whitehead explained. "Most of her time spent in the Alberta Children's Hospital, Harper was medically sedated and medically paralyzed, so she wouldn't fight against the tubes and machines she had attached to her."

"This is largely preventable and we know immunization is key to preventing outbreaks such as the one in the south zone," Strong said.

Caregivers include anyone who has direct contact with a child such as parents, grandparents, nannies or day-care staff. The goal, said Strong, is to create a "cocoon" of vaccinated people around newborns.

"By vaccinating the parents and caregivers with a pertussis booster, there is a decreased risk to the child contracting the disease from the people close to them."

Immunization clinics were set up in the spring when the outbreak first occurred. Additional clinics have been scheduled for communities in southern Alberta this month for parents and caregivers of infants less than one year old.

— With files from CJOC

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said Harper's aunt is Jessica Harper, who is actually the child's mother. It also corrects the ages at which babies are most vulnerable.

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