Mary-Clayton Enderlein Knows First-hand About The Importance of Adult Immunization

Mary-Clayton Enderlein was in her ninth month of pregnancy when she came in contact with an unvaccinated child who had pertussis (whooping cough). Because pregnancy can compromise the immune system, Enderlein contracted the disease, despite the fact that she had been immunized against it. Although her symptoms were relatively mild, she was still suffering with the disease when she gave birth to her son Colin and unknowingly passed the disease on to him. Young infants are within the age range in which pertussis poses the most danger for severe complications and even death.

Enderlein’s story highlights the potential repercussions that can come from a choice not to vaccinate a child. When individuals are immunized, they not only protect themselves from disease but they also protect their family and friends. Mary-Clayton Enderlein talks about the impact that contact with an unvaccinated child had on her family.

Q. How was your son Colin affected by pertussis?

A. I gave my son Colin pertussis with my first kiss, and I watched him suffer with the disease for the first few months of his life. Pertussis left him exhausted because he would cough continuously until he turned blue and threw up, gasping for breath. At one week of age, he was hospitalized for ten days and placed on continuous monitors and intravenous medications. The effects of the disease continued for many months even after his discharge from the hospital. Listening to his every heartbeat, I came to understand what it feels like to watch your child battle a potentially fatal disease long before he even took his first steps. I encourage all parents to be on the lookout for pertussis so that they do not spread it to younger children and infants. No child is safe unless he or she is vaccinated against pertussis. Unfortunately, for Colin, we never had the choice to make.

Q. Why is it important for people around you to be immunized?

A. We don’t remember what it was like in the early 20 th century when these vaccine-preventable diseases ran rampant, yet even today these diseases can be deadly for infants and sometimes deadly for adults. We do see outbreaks in other parts of the world, and if we don’t take our social responsibility to ensure we have a good level of protection here in the US , we could see many people contracting vaccine-preventable diseases. We cannot depend on the rest of society to get immunized and flippantly say, “Well, everyone else is immunized, so I don’t have to worry about immunizing my children.”

Q. What do you say to those who question the value of immunization?

A. I support choice in health care issues, but these parents who question the value of immunization think that the most severe consequences will be a healthy child contracting a vaccine-preventable disease. They hold the idea that it will be annoying to have a sick child, but he or she will soon get better. These parents don’t realize that their child could pass that disease to an elderly person or an infant who are in a higher risk category, and the disease could be deadly to them. That is what happened to my newborn baby. The child who came to my house was infected with pertussis and was coughing when she and her mother arrived. This was an inconvenience for her family, but they were not worried. However, when our infant got pertussis, it was deadly. I ask these questions of parents who distrust the value of immunization: What would it be like if a disease was to rage through the US ? If there was some outbreak of another disease, would you protect your kids by immunizing them? Who do you think is going to protect your family? Who will immunize your child? Do you not plan to travel with your kids? Parents say, “I don’t want to put my child at risk for the small side effects that may happen from immunization.” I think that if everyone in the US had lived through the early 1900s, their thoughts on immunization would be changed. People would embrace immunization.

A lot of people think it won’t happen to them. They will not get a vaccine-preventable disease. I have heard some parents say, “It is ok if my kid does get the disease. I am still not immunizing them.” I don’t understand that answer, and I have no response to it. I feel like it is irresponsible to depend on the rest of us to pull the weight for those who are not immunized.

Q. Why are you involved with Parents with Kids with Infectious Diseases (PKIDS)?

A. When the offer first came to join PKIDS, I was with Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies of Washington State and its Immunization Action Coalition. PKIDS contacted me to see if I would be a part of its education and advocacy group. When I said yes, I became an education conduit, helping parents realize the risks of not immunizing their children and acting as a support to parents who had experienced these vaccine-preventable diseases first hand. This was a natural progression professionally and personally for me so that I could have a voice and advocate for these kids. I meet parents through PKIDS who do not understand that my experience could happen to them. You just don’t know where you are going to get a vaccine-preventable disease. For example, one parent’s child received pertussis while he was in the hospital being treated for another illness. People need to hear more pro-immunization stories. My story of a newborn infant on a ventilator with pertussis is very compelling and a story, I feel, people need to hear.

Q. Why did you contract whooping cough even though you had been immunized?

A. The strength of the pertussis vaccine wears off over time. It protects when you’re most vulnerable—when you are a young child. I was 32 years old and nine months pregnant with my second child when I contracted the disease. The vaccine had weakened over a 30-year period. Healthy adults are not as vulnerable to the disease as are young children and those with weakened immune systems. I was healthy, but because I was pregnant, my immune system was suppressed enough that when I was exposed to the disease, I was unable to fight it. We ended up giving antibiotics to everyone within our immediate vicinity that I had seen after exposure to the virus. This was especially important to those who were over 60 and to children who hadn’t been through their entire immunization series.

Q. Why is it significant that you contracted whooping cough even though you had been immunized?

A. People choose not to immunize. This increases the likelihood that diseases will spread. The diseases increase because there is a larger pool of people who are now susceptible to the disease along with all the other people who are naturally at-risk for the disease (children who haven’t completed the immunization series, immuno-suppressed populations or the small percentage of people whose immunizations did not take in the first place). Therefore, when more people choose not to immunize, we no longer can protect those who are naturally at-risk, and more people can develop the disease. We are having epidemics of whooping cough out here in Seattle , WA . That first week before you really feel sick, you are shedding the disease and passing germs along as you go about your daily business.

Q. What would you like people to take away from your experience?

A. There are several messages. First, people should understand that pertussis (and many other vaccine-preventable diseases) can be very easily transmitted. I contracted pertussis from a kid who was across the room from me. I also want people to realize that we don’t live in a bubble, but we live on a dynamic planet, giving us all the more reason to consider immunization. Some of these diseases are often just annoying and inconvenient for older kids and adults but are deadly in infants. It is our social responsibility to immunize, just like we would not drive drunk or smoke in public. We realize that our actions affect other people around us. Until you have been through the disease, you just don’t know what it is like. I have been through the disease. If people had been more mindful and had taken precautions, I may not have contracted this disease, and my infant son would not have suffered.

Mary-Clayton Enderlein, RN, MPH, has an in-depth knowledge of and passion for safety, wellness and preventive health services. She has 23 years experience in nursing, management and teaching in the fields of healthcare, fitness and education. She worked with the Indian Health Service branch of the US Public Health Service while a nursing student at Georgetown University and spent her summers interning on the reservations of Northern Idaho. It was there that she was first exposed to programs dedicated to communicable disease prevention on a large scale. Following graduation, she continued to work with Native Americans in Alaska where she became involved with program development to address public health challenges. She also experienced first hand the devastating effects of individuals and populations crippled by vaccine-preventable diseases.