MORGAN PARK — Kaden Matthew Sienkiewicz lived just one month and six days. Yet the Morgan Park infant continues to make an impact.
Kaden died of pertussis, or whooping cough, on Sept. 9, 2011. His mother, Erin Dowling-Sienkiewicz, detailed the events of her son's short life on Facebook. Her heart-wrenching story brings many readers to tears.
But sharing Kaden's story wasn't enough. Erin and her husband, Matthew Sienkiewicz, are behind a petition that aims to better inform Illinois residents about epidemic outbreaks of contagious disease, such as pertussis.
"It happens. It sucks. Now, how can we prevent [pertussis] from happening to someone else," said Dowling-Sienkiewicz, an elementary school teacher at John Whistler Elementary School in West Pullman.
Her online petition has 1,577 supporters. It asks Illinois lawmakers to support a plan that would mandate postcards be sent to all households, businesses and Post Office boxes in an area where a contagious disease reaches epidemic levels.
"Pertussis is a communicable disease, and we just want the CDC to let us know what there is an epidemic in the case that there is one," Dowling-Sienkiewicz said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently rely on state and local public health officials in the event of an epidemic. These groups are asked to broadcast information on the type of contagious disease and what people can do to protect themselves, said Jason McDonald, a CDC spokesman.
A bill that would have mandated postcards be sent to residents living in an area where an epidemic disease has been confirmed was defeated last year in Illinois, according to Melaney Arnold, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Arnold said the current procedure for epidemics involves reaching out to emergency rooms and health care centers. School districts are also informed, which often results in notes being sent home from school warning parents of an outbreak and how to protect themselves and their children.
The Sienkiewicz family remains undeterred. They believe the postcards are the next step in further improving pertussis awareness. Since Kaden's death, numerous improvements have been made that aim to better combat the disease.
Among the changes, the CDC began recommending last year that pregnant mothers receive the Tdap booster shot in the third trimester. The antibodies from the vaccine protect against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis and can be passed along to the baby in utero, McDonald said.
He said deadly cases of pertussis among infants, including Kaden, led to the recommendation. Before, mothers typically received the Tdap booster shot after the baby was born.
In Illinois, it's recommended that children receive the DTaP vaccine at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, between 15 and 18 months and between 4 and 6 years old. This vaccine protects infants and children against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis.
But that leaves a particularly dangerous gap for infants susceptible to the disease within the first two months. The prenatal booster hopes to close that gap, though it's too early to tell the impact of giving pregnant women the shot, McDonald said.
It's not just mothers and children who need to protect against these diseases, either. Since Kaden's death, efforts have also been made to spread awareness and encourage more adults to update their vaccinations.
It is recommended that adults receive the Tdap booster every 10 years, according to the state health department. Pertussis is more difficult to identify in adults, since the main symptom of whooping cough for teens and adults is typically just a bad, lingering cough.
"The CDC recommends family members of an expectant mother, who may have frequent contact with the newborn, also get a pertussis booster to create a cocoon of protection around the new baby," McDonald said.
To further drive home this point, the language of the Pertussis Vaccine Act in Illinois was amended on Aug. 5. It now requires hospitals to provide pamphlets to parents and guardians of newborns that warn of the dangers of pertussis.
Illinois also began requiring preteens show proof of receiving the Tdap vaccine for the 2013-2014 school year. This booster shot further protects these kids, as well as younger children they may encounter, against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis.
"This new requirement for sixth- through 12th-graders comes at a time when we have seen increases in whooping cough cases over the past couple years," said Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, director of the state health department.
But while awareness of pertussis seems to be improving, there's also a pocket of parents who advocate against vaccinations. Several celebrities, including Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and his wife, Kristin Cavallari, are among the anti-vaccine set, putting a spotlight on the long-held practice.
Dowling-Sienkiewicz understands the trepidation parents may feel as they prepare to vaccinate their children. She admitted that the DTaP vaccine can seem particularly scary to administer to an infant, as it addresses three diseases in one shot.
"At the same time, I want to show them a picture of my son," she said, motioning to a photo collage of Kaden on a nearby bookshelf.
Matthew Sienkiewicz took it a step further, saying parents who opt out of vaccinations should be held liable if their untreated children happen to spread pertussis to someone else.
"Your kids end up becoming walking bombs," he said.
Regardless, the Sienkiewicz family continues to push for improvements to the system of notifying Illinois residents in the event of an epidemic. Petitions for similar laws mandating postcards are also in place in Washington, Oregon and Michigan.
They believe naming the petition and a new Illinois law after Kaden is deserving of his legacy.
"It helps to know it wasn't in vain," she said.