Each year before 1945, one person out of every six hundred -- generally a child -- would develop the "hundred day cough." The distinctive signature of the illness was blue-faced coughing fits punctuated by gasping breaths -- the "whoop" of air sucked though airways choked with gluey mucus, a common sound in the chilly tenements of New York's Lower East Side.
This unique enemy was Bordetella pertussis -- a highly infectious bacterium that spreads easily in flying droplets of moisture. Once the infection becomes rooted into the bronchial tree, the exhausted victims struggle to cough the thick phlegm out of their airways in an ordeal that can last all winter. Even modern antibiotics have limited usefulness, and survival becomes a matter of personal endurance. The greatest toll is taken on the very young and the very old, a fraction of whom will eventually succumb to pneumonia or brain damage.
Thanks to the preventative series of Diphtheria/Pertussis/Tetanus shots routinely administered to most American children, "whooping cough" nowadays has a distinctly old fashioned sound, although the germ still managed to kill almost a third of a million worldwide in the year 2000. Yet, even while vaccination has eliminated 99.5 % of cases today, carelessness or misplaced paranoia causes a third of parents to neglect vaccinations, unwinding sixty years of hard-won progress and making many neighborhoods vulnerable once again.
Don't be surprised if in the near future you witness another epidemic of whooping cough sweeping America like a white-hot prairie fire, infecting and sometimes killing a new generation of children along with their grandparents. Since the DPT shot immunity lasts only about ten years, you might among them -- if you haven't caught it already! How long have you had that cough anyway?