The 2012 Whooping Cough Epidemic: What You Need To Know

    A little girl with long black hair lying in her bed beside a teddy bear, coughing into a tissueWhooping cough is causing the worst epidemic seen in the United States in more than 50 years, health officials said Thursday, and they’re calling for mass vaccination of adults. The CDC recently announced that there are more cases of whooping cough than they’ve seen in five decades.

    Why is it happening and what can you do to protect yourself and your family from this highly contagious illness?

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     What the latest news on this disease?

    The epidemic has killed nine babies so far and babies are by far the most vulnerable to the disease, also known as pertussis, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. The best way to protect them is to vaccinate the adults around them, and to vaccinate pregnant women so their babies are born with some immunity.

    “As of today, nationwide nearly 18,000 cases have been reported to the CDC,” the CDC’s Dr. Anne Schuchat explained. “That is nearly twice as many as reported last year. We may be on track for a record high pertussis rate this year,” she added. “We may need to go back to 1959 to find as many cases. I think there may be more coming to a place near you. In many cases, babies get this illness from their mothers or others close to them. It’s absolutely tragic.”

    Why are so many outbreaks happening in 2012? 

    The reasons for the current outbreaks of whooping cough, also known as pertussis, and what should be done to contain them are not especially clear. One of the factors contributing to these outbreaks is a vaccine that is not as effective as everyone wants.

    The CDC is trying to figure out what’s going on, but Dr. Schuchat said a couple of factors are clearly at work. The formulation for the whooping cough vaccine was changed in 1997, and kids hitting age 13 and 14 now are the first to have been fully vaccinated with five doses of the new vaccine. The new formulation causes less of a reaction, but it may also wear off sooner, Schuchat said.

    Until 1997, the pertussis vaccine contained whole killed bacteria and it was extremely potent. But many doctors and parents believed the vaccine had an unacceptably large number of side effects. As a result, scientists developed a vaccine that contains only five proteins from the bacteria.

    This new vaccine is much safer but not quite as effective as the older one. That is why in some people immunity wanes over time and they gain the potential to become re-infected and pass the bacteria on to infants, who are at the greatest danger of serious complications.

    What is being done to stop these outbreaks?

    The CDC recommends vaccinating young children, but the message about booster shots for older children and adults is not as clear.  There is no question that as more people get vaccinated, there will be fewer cases.  But with the current vaccine experts expect outbreaks like the ones we are seeing now in Washington State and elsewhere will continue. Scientists are now trying to develop a more effective, safer vaccine.

    What causes whooping cough?

    Whooping cough is an airway infection caused by the Bordetella pertussis bacteria that results in significant illness and risk of death in children, especially those younger than one year old. The World Health Organization estimates that there are 20 to 40 million cases of whooping cough in the world per year, with 90 percent of those cases occurring in developing countries. In 2010, there were 27,550 reported cases of pertussis in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

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