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Breast Feed Your Baby for Protection against Whooping Cough

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In previous generations, many newly born babies were protected from contracting whooping cough in their first weeks by being breast fed by a mother who had had whooping cough as a child. This provided her with a rich supply of antibodies in her milk with which to feed her own baby. It also meant that she wouldn’t get whooping cough during her childbearing years and put her baby at risk. Natural immunity is usually life long.

After the widespread introduction of the DPT vaccine, a lot of children no longer had whooping cough in their early years and instead this was postponed until they went to school or until their teen years. Artificially aquired antibodies wane after a few years, leaving the vaccinated person capable of contracting the disease and this meant that new parents were vulnerable just at the time when they were bringing new life into the world.

Compounding this problem is the fact that the majority of babies are now formula fed. Although a large percentage are breast fed at birth, most are given formula milk before they reach the age of eight weeks. This means that they are denied valuable maternal antibodies that would protect them from complications of whooping cough at a time when the illness carries the most risks.

If your doctor has told you that breast feeding doesn’t protect your baby from infectious diseases including whooping cough, he obviously hasn’t read the research. Breast feeding is the single most important thing you can do for your baby’s health! Research from around the globe shows that breast milk DOES protect against whooping cough.

The Annals of Tropical Pediatrics found that breast milk contained antibodies to whooping cough, Haemophilus Influenzae B, pneumonia and meningitis.
‘Children under 2 years of age are most susceptible to acute respiratory infections caused by Bordetella pertussis, Haemophilus influenzae type b, Streptococcus pneumoniae and Neisseria meningitidis. We analyzed milk samples and sera from mother-infant pairs for specific antibodies that may enhance protection against the bacterial pathogens. The results show that the breast-milk samples contained significant titres of specific IgG and IgA antibodies to the four organisms, although the mean IgG antibody levels were higher in maternal sera than in breast-milk. On the other hand, the mean IgA antibody levels to the four organisms were higher in breast-milk than in both maternal and infant sera. IgM antibodies to these organisms were relatively low or absent in many milk and serum samples. Nevertheless, the significant concentrations of specific IgG and IgA antibodies in milk samples may indicate a protective role for breast-milk against the four infections in early childhood.’

Another study in FEMS Microbiology Letters found that human breast milk inhibited the growth of bordetella pertussis but that bovine milk did not – showing what a huge disadvantage bottle fed babies have in terms of their immune defences.

‘It has been demonstrated that human milk, unlike bovine milk, can reduce the viability of Bordetella pertussis. This antibacterial activity was not due to the presence of antibiotics or antibodies in the human milk. Reducing the level of available iron or increasing the concentration of lysozyme in bovine milk did not induce anti-B. pertussis activity. Analysis of total fatty acids revealed that human milk contained significantly more linoleic acid than bovine milk. However, the addition of linoleic acid to bovine milk did not inhibit the growth of B. pertussis.’

In an animal study where mice were infected with pertussis, it was found that some colostrum could protect the mice against the affects of the pertussis:
‘Colostrum samples from Indonesian mothers were assayed for antibodies which agglutinate Bordetella pertussis and for antibodies to the filamentous hemagglutinin and the lymphocytosis-promoting factor of B. pertussis. Agglutinins were assayed by a microtiter method, and 36 of 58 samples tested (62%) had titers above 1:10. Colostrum containing anti-lymphocytosis-promoting factor or agglutinins was protective.’

And a very recent 2010 study found that antibodies in breast milk were effective against respiratory infections caused by pertussis:

‘Although acquisition of anti-pertussis antibodies by the newborn via placental transfer has been demonstrated, a subsequent recrudescence of pertussis infection is often observed, particularly in infants. The present study investigated the passive transfer of anti-pertussis IgG and IgA antibodies to term newborns and their ability to neutralize bacterial pathogenicity in an in vivo experimental model using mice intracerebrally challenged with viable Bordetella pertussis. Forty paired samples of maternal/umbilical cord sera and colostrum were obtained. Anti-pertussis antibodies were analysed by immunoenzymatic assay and by Immunoblotting. Antibody neutralizing ability was assessed through intracerebral B. pertussis challenges in mice. Anti-pertussis IgG titres were equivalent in both maternal and newborn sera (medians = 1:225 and 1:265), with a transfer rate of 118%. The colostrum samples had variable specific IgA titres (median = 1:74. Unlike samples with lower anti-pertussis titres, samples with high titres showed protective capacities above 50%. Pertussis-absorbed serum and colostrum pools protected 30% of mice and purified IgG antibodies protected 65%. Both pooled and single-sample protective abilities were correlated with antibody titres (P < 0.01). Our data demonstrated the effectiveness of anti-pertussis antibodies in bacterial pathogenesis neutralization, emphasizing the importance of placental transfer and breast-feeding in protecting infants against respiratory infections caused by Bordetella pertussis.’

So next time someone tells you that your milk isn’t good enough for your baby, tell them of all the wonderful benefits it has including shielding him from the complications of newborn pertussis.

Sources: FEMS Microbiol Lett. 1990 Aug;58(3):269-73
Ann Trop Paediatr. 1989 Dec;9(4):226-32
Infect Immun. 1985 Feb;47(2):441-5
Scand J Immunol. 2010 Jul;72(1):66-73

Joanna is a freelance health writer for The Mother magazine and Suite 101 with a column on infertility, http://infertility.suite101.com/. She is author of the book, 'Breast Milk: A Natural Immunisation,' and co-author of an educational resource on disabled parenting, in addition to running a charity for people damaged by vaccines or medical mistakes. Her 13 year old daughter, Jerrica, had whooping cough when she was a baby, after she was formula fed from 10 weeks.

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EmpowHER Guest

Hello Ms. Karpasea-Jones,
we have been in touch before when you sent me (free of charge I might add) your leaflet on the powers of breast milk in Cape Town. Once again thank you for that. Because of our misinformation and our ignorance of the law our son was vaccinated for bcg, polio, dpt hep b and was given prevenar all within 10 days after 1 month of being born. Since then no vaccinations and constant breast feeding which he is still on at 9 months old.
We were told by a doctor recently, that breast milk has very little efficacy at 9 months after birth and we were recommended a product called Icreo. We have already decide not to use it and to keep on breast feeding with the mother eating as healthily as possible.
Why is that the medical profession seems to be against breast milk? I say this because all doctors that we have been to see, in at least 3 different continents have said that we should go on to some kind of branded formula milk as breast milk is not good enough - which makes no sense to me. Be that as it may, Breast milk rules in our household.
I can tell you that the determination is to let his own body do the work and our responsibility is to continue learning what the symptoms of many childhood diseases are so that we may recognise it and act accordingly and swiftly if and when they occur.

We have recently moved to Japan and the pressure here to vaccinate is high. We recently did a check on our son and when the doctor heard that we were not going the vaccination route, it was then all about fear mongering with the word death mentioned several times in 10 mins of conversation. So we had to do some more research to refresh our minds on why we decided not to vaccinate and we are fully refreshed..:)
This note is just to express our appreciation for the work you have done and are doing and the fact that you always reference whatever you write. I mention this in particular as it so important to see where all the info hails from. Keep up the good work.

February 10, 2011 - 1:36am
(reply to Anonymous)

I think doctor apathy about breast feeding is multi-factoral. From a cultural point of view, in western society the majority of humans have not breast fed their children beyond 6 or 8 weeks and this trend has occured probably since around the 1930's and 40's. Commercialised baby milk was invented in 1867 but it wasn't until later on that it began to be pushed heavily by milk companies. It was marketed as something that rich mothers did (breast milk being for poor babies because it was free) and women's breasts began to be portrayed in the media as sexual objects, which of course they can be, but it moved the public perception of them away from the intended function. At the end of the day, they are there to feed a baby. However, by the 30's, 40's, 50's breasts were seen as purely sexual and when la Leche League set up in the 50's they called themselves that (from the Spanish for milk) so that they could advertise group meetings in the newspaper without using the word 'breast' and causing offence.

Many doctors weren't breast fed themselves, didn't see their mother feeding their siblings, etc. When I had my now 8 year old daughter (who was breast fed till 3 years and 7 months), myself and my best friend were the only two people I knew who breast fed their children. I was advised by a nurse to add formula milk when my daughter was only 3 months old to 'give me a break' and because she was 'getting big' - yes, she was getting big on wholesome, natural human milk!
It is not seen anymore in our society in virtually any industrial country so even though it is the norm, it is not thought of as the norm.
The fact that we as a culture have grown used to knowing how many ounces our babies are drinking has led to fears around breast feeding because you can't 'see' how much breast milk a baby is drinking. This leads some people, even misguided medical professionals, to want to add formula so they can measure how much baby is getting.

Another issue is that doctors are busy and a lot of them don't have time to sit there and read research articles. They have too many patients to see so even though there are many articles out there showing benefit for older babies and toddlers who are allowed to continue to breast feed, they aren't aware of them. The WHO for instance recommend that all children should be breast fed for a MIMIMUM of 2 years for their health (and that is the bare mimimum recommendation), yet despite this most health professionals say six months to a year of breast feeding is fine. They acknowledge a baby needs at least 1 year of some type of infant milk so if the baby is weaned from the breast at six months it would still require formula after that, so that logic really makes no sense.

Another reason I think they don't highlight breast milk immunity is that they obviously want people to have vaccines and some mothers, such as your wife, may choose not to if they read the studies showing protection against hib, whooping cough etc. Studies saying that breast milk prevents chest infections etc are readily announced in the press and by doctors yet the ones indicating protection from childhood diseases are never mentioned by either. They want you to take their product and at the end of the day, you're not going to if you realise there's something better and free on tap from the mother's own body.

There are some good doctors out there who support breast feeding and have read the research and my own GP has been supportive of me breast feeding (after the health visitor told me I would give my son tooth decay by breast feeding!), but I think they are rather the exception than the rule.

Your wife sounds like she's doing an excellent job in continuing to breast feed your son and you are being a great advocate for them both.

Best Wishes,

Joanna (whose breast feeding 3 year and 8 month old is just starting to self-wean by his own accord as nature intended).

February 10, 2011 - 8:27am
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