Lower the Risk of Whooping Cough–Please!

July 24th, 2014 by admin

Barbara Lounsbury, M.D.
TIEE Medical Director

What is Whooping Cough (Pertussis)?

Whooping Cough, or Pertussis, is a highly contagious bacterial disease that initially looks like a cold but then it progresses to uncontrollable, violent coughing, which can make it hard to breath.  The disease is named for the “whooping” sound that is often heard in young children with the infection when they try to take a breath. To hear what a “whooping” cough sounds like, go to http://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/about/signs-symptoms.html.

Because infants haven’t been fully immunized yet and also because their airways are small, they have the highest risk of dying from whooping cough (10 California babies died of whooping cough last year).  Their severe cough actually keeps them from breathing, so their death is often attributed to suffocation.  Although death is not common, nearly half of infants with the disease must be hospitalized.

Older children and adults with the infection cough a lot, and sometimes they cough hard enough to break their ribs, but they don’t make the whooping sound. Their severe cough can last 2-6 weeks and full recovery can take several months as the coughing spells gradually decrease.

Recent rise in casesThere has been a dramatic increase in the number of cases of pertussis.  Last year, there were 16,858 cases in the U.S., 9,100 of which were in California.  Pertussis is a common bacterium, so it is always around and the increase in the number of cases is predominantly due to two factors:

1.  More parents are choosing to not immunize their children, and

2.  The new pertussis vaccine, which is associated with fewer fevers and other side effects, is most effective in the first couple of years after immunization but, overall, is less effective than the older vaccine.

The Pertussis vaccine, which is given today (usually with Tetanus and Diphtheria vaccines, and together called Tdap), is 80-90% effective for a couple of years and remains 70% effective for at least 5 years.   To increase the vaccine’s effectiveness over time, occasional boosters are recommended for both children and adults.

Here’s something to think about

Unvaccinated children are 8 times more likely to get pertussis than kids who have been vaccinated.  In addition, unvaccinated kids, who contract pertussis, have more severe symptoms and are more infectious than vaccinated children.

Here’s what you can do?

Double-check the immunization status of everyone in your family, including grandparents.  Unimmunized people are at risk of contracting pertussis and, if they get the disease, they put infants, who can’t be immunized, and grandparents, who may not have gotten their booster recently and may have compromised respiratory systems, at risk for severe illness.

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