Dr. Scott Halperin
Inflammation, Infection & Immunity
Preventing pertussis deaths: Pertussis, the highly contagious bacterial lung infection also known as whooping cough, takes its greatest toll among infants. “Most pertussis deaths occur in the vulnerable period between birth and the first vaccine at two months,” says Dr. Scott Halperin, director of the Canadian Center for Vaccinology at the IWK Health Centre and professor in the departments of Pediatrics and Microbiology & Immunology at Dalhousie Medical School. “In babies, especially, pertussis leads to overwhelming pneumonia that doesn’t respond to antibiotics.”
Recent pertussis outbreaks in Nova Scotia’s Cumberland County, New Brunswick, British Columbia and other locations in North America demonstrate the cyclical nature of the disease and its tendency to re-emerge if the population is not properly immunized.
Dr. Halperin and his colleagues want to protect infants in their first months of life by providing them with plenty of pertussis antibodies from their mothers. They do this by vaccinating pregnant women in their last trimester, to stimulate antibody production. “The mothers’ antibodies are transferred to the infants, which will hopefully protect them until they start to develop their own immunity,” says Dr. Halperin. “Now we are studying how the infants’ own immunity develops once they are vaccinated, after having received antibodies from their mothers.”
After preliminary trials at the IWK showed promising results, Dr. Halperin and his team recruited six more centres across Canada to launch a multi-centre clinicial trial. The first women will be enrolled this September.
“If everything goes well with the trials, pertussis vaccination in pregnancy could become standard practice in Canada within two years,” notes Dr. Halperin. He is also involved in a national study to see if giving women a vaccine against group B streptococcus during pregnancy can prevent their babies from being infected during birth. This would protect the babies from meningitis, sepsis and other serious complications of newborn strep B infection, without antibiotics and the problems they can cause.