Arne Asphjell got a bad case of whooping cough as a baby. His mother feared he would die. But Arne survived. The pictures are from later in his childhood. (Photo: private)
Arne Asphjell got a bad case of whooping cough as a baby. His mother feared he would die. But Arne survived. The pictures are from later in his childhood. (Photo: private)

Whooping cough once a childhood killer

He turned blue from coughing, and his mother was sure that he had died. Pertussis killed many children in the 1940s. After most children were vaccinated, it was virtually eliminated as a killer.

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Arne Asphjell was a few months old when he caught whooping cough in 1946, before children were vaccinated against the disease. Almost everyone got whooping cough, which attacks the respiratory system.

Although most children caught whooping cough and survived, not all emerged unscathed. The disease, with its powerful coughing attacks, is especially serious for very young children. During a 1949 epidemic, 80 children died.

Sent up in airplanes

Desperate parents and doctors tried some unorthodox treatment methods. Little Arne was sent up in a plane along with other sick children, in hopes that height would have a beneficial effect. Flights as a treatment for pertussis were also used in Sweden and England in this period.

But nothing seemed to help. “I coughed so hard I stopped breathing, I was blue in the face. My mom told she put me in my father’s arms and said: ‘Now he’s gone’," Arne says. “But luckily things turned out OK.”

The doctor considered Odd Karlsen dead when Odd was a baby. Luckily the doctor misjudged the situation. (Photo: private)
The doctor considered Odd Karlsen dead when Odd was a baby. Luckily the doctor misjudged the situation. (Photo: private)

It was no less dramatic for Odd Karlsen. He wasn’t able to get the vaccine that had been introduced into the childhood immunization programme the year before. Odd was just six weeks old when he caught whooping cough in 1953.

The violent coughing caused Odd to lie lifeless in his parents’ arms.

The doctor who made home visits apparently sat down to write Odd’s death certificate, saying there was nothing more he could do. But his mother took matters into her own hands. She held Odd upside down and got out some phlegm. Then his little body gasped for breath and returned to life.

"I didn’t give up," his mother told him. Odd is happy about that today.

Still serious today
Cases of whooping cough per 100 000 inhabitants in Norway 1900-2013. (Source: Statistics Norway and MSIS, FHI)
Cases of whooping cough per 100 000 inhabitants in Norway 1900-2013. (Source: Statistics Norway and MSIS, FHI)

Whooping cough is still serious today, even with improved treatment.

Infant deaths from pertussis happen very rarely nowadays. Norway’s last reported deaths were one in 2003 and one in 2004. They were both children under three months who had not yet been vaccinated. A milder version of the illness can also occur in vaccinated children.

We’re a long way from 1940 conditions, but after several years with few cases, pertussis flared up again from about 1997 onwards. Pertussis is highly contagious, and the vaccine that most children get does not last forever. And many adults do not follow up with a booster dose.

Adults should be vaccinated

Health authorities want everyone to get a booster vaccine every ten years, to protect both themselves and the youngest children, who tend to be the hardest hit. Babies are vulnerable until they are vaccinated at three months, so it is important for the general population to be vaccinated.

Older children and adults can also be sick for protracted periods, says consultant Margrethe Greve-Isdahl of the Norwegian National Institute of Public Health. “If you don’t get vaccinated, you risk becoming seriously ill, and in the worst case, you can die,” she said.

To counter the pertussis flare-up in Norway, health authorities have introduced new rounds of vaccinations for children and teens. In 2006 a dose was added for Year 2 primary pupils, which has led to fewer infections in this age group. But with many adolescents also getting pertussis, an additional dose has been offered to students in their last year of lower secondary school since 2014.

“We continuously evaluate whether our recommendations are adequate to protect the very youngest children, or whether we need to adjust them,” says Greve-Isdahl.

Vaccine choice

Asphjell contended with several childhood illnesses, like many others born before the child immunization program was implemented. Growing up, he had mumps and measles, as well as whooping cough.

He wants to take the fewest possible vaccines, but he has vaccinated his children and himself according to the recommendations. “People have to decide for themselves,” he says.

However, Tone Tellevik Dahl, Labour Party mayoral candidate in Oslo, will consider making vaccines mandatory, according to the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.

Karlsen, who also nearly died of whooping cough, finds it irresponsible of parents not to vaccinate their children. “I don’t understand. It's completely idiotic,” he says.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at Forskning.no

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