Protecting against whooping cough

Vaccinations best tools for disease prevention

By Elaine M. Bush

MSU Extension

MICHIGAN — Pertussis, more commonly known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory disease. Found only in humans, the disease is caused by the bacterium Bordella pertussis and spreads from person to person by coughing or sneezing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most effective tool for preventing pertussis is vaccination. Though no vaccine is 100 percent effective, the CDC notes if a vaccinated individual contracts this very contagious disease, their infection will generally be less severe.

Those affected characteristically experience bouts of uncontrollable, violent coughing which make breathing difficult, can leave the individual very tired, and, at times, cause vomiting. The person often needs to take several deep breaths after one of these episodes of prolonged

coughing. This results in a “whooping” sound. Learn what the “whooping” typically sounds like to know what to listen for. These coughing fits can continue for up to ten weeks or more with recovery from pertussis often a slow process whereby the cough becoming less severe and less often.

The CDC notes whooping cough most commonly affects infants and young children. It can be fatal especially for those under the age of one. Babies are more at risk because their airways are smaller and their respiratory systems less developed. About half of infants younger than one year of age who contract whooping cough require hospitalization.

As part of the routine vaccination schedule for children, Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH), explains that infants receive their first dose of the pertussis vaccine when two months of age but are not considered completely protected until they’ve received a series of boosters through 18 months of age. Newborns and infants who are not yet fully vaccinated may contract whooping cough from older sibling, parents and other caregivers.

While symptoms usually develop five to ten days after exposure, it sometimes may take up to three weeks for recognizable symptoms to occur. Conceivable, a person in the early stages of infection could unknowingly pass the pertussis bacterium to a vulnerable infant. The disease usually starts with cold-like symptoms. At first a person may have a cough or mild fever but unlike the common cold, this can progress after one or two weeks to bouts of severe coughing. Treatment generally involves antibiotics and the earlier that treatment starts, the less severe the infection will be. Another benefit of early treatment is that it should help prevent others in close contact with the individual from contracting the disease. Visit the CDC website to learn more about pertussis and the serious complications that may occur for various age groups.

In a press release published by the MDCH in early August, they reported 546 cases of whooping cough occurring in the state from January through July 2014, about 45 per cent more than during the same period in 2013. The same article also noted that similar increases were being documented in several other states including Ohio, Florida, and California.

Worldwide, the CDC estimates that annually 16 million cases of whooping cough occur resulting in about 195,000 deaths. For many years whooping cough was a very common and worrisome disease that parents feared. Once a vaccine was developed in the 1940’s and began being administered routinely to children across the U.S., the incidence of cases dropped dramatically. Since the 1980’s however, the number of reported cases in the U.S. began to rise. One reason for the most recent increase is likely due to a growing trend of parents opting out of having their young children vaccinated. Another reason cited by health officials is the immunity provided by vaccination eventually may decrease over time. Because of that decreased protection, it is now suggested by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases that adults 19-64 years of age receive a one-time whooping cough booster vaccination. Individuals over 65 should also do so if they will have close contact with children under one year of age. It is further recommended that pregnant women receive a booster during the third trimester of each pregnancy to help protect newborns during their early months of life before vaccination begins.