Pertussis Making a Comeback
Whooping cough – a bacterial disease characterized by a violent, debilitating cough – is making a comeback.
Thought to be wiped out by the mid-1970s, the highly contagious disease reportedly caused 17,000 U.S. cases in 2009, although scores of unreported cases increased this number many times over.
Currently, there are recognized outbreaks in California, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio, as well as several other smaller community clusters throughout the country.
"This is a truly tragic disease because both the child and family suffer for weeks before recovery is possible," says James Conway, MD, a UW Health pediatric infectious disease specialist. "Fortunately, it is very easy to prevent by ensuring that your whooping cough, or pertussis, vaccine is up to date."
This is particularly important to women who are pregnant, have just given birth or have close contact with infants. Getting an adult vaccination for whooping cough with a Tdap vaccine can easily save a baby from this potentially fatal disease.
"No one would dream of giving whooping cough to their baby intentionally, but it could happen," says Dr. Conway. "We might think that our babies are protected when they get vaccinated for pertussis, but immunization requires a full series of vaccines, and no vaccine is 100 percent protective."
Dr. Conway says a baby is most vulnerable during the first few months of life, which is why anyone in close contact with newborns should be immunized.
"By the time most of us reach adulthood, we are typically 20 or 30 years past the time we were last vaccinated, so our immunity to whooping cough has long since worn off," he adds. "Teenagers are also susceptible to whooping cough and can become ill themselves or transmit the infection to siblings. For these reasons,"
Dr. Conway says, "Wisconsin now requires the Tdap vaccine for all students in grades 6 through 12."
The whooping cough vaccine (usually called DTaP for infants and young children, and Tdap for adolescents and adults) also protects against two other potentially deadly diseases: diphtheria and tetanus—also known as lockjaw.
"Immunizations don’t end at childhood," says Dr. Conway, "so adults should check with their physicians during routine visits and physicals to see if they are due for booster shots to guard against these diseases.