The 2012 Whooping Cough Epidemic: What You Need To Know

African mother with happy baby

African mother with happy baby

Whooping 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.

Infants less than six months of age are at highest risk for developing severe complications from pertussis. Pneumonia, rib fracture or hernias from violent coughing, seizures, and fainting can all arise from whooping cough. Because infants have less developed immune systems, these complications from pertussis can be life-threatening.

How is whooping cough spread?

Whooping cough is spread through droplets in the air during coughing or sneezing. The bacteria is breathed in through the nose and then travels throughout the airways. This disease is highly contagious.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

The word “pertussis” means “violent cough,” and that is the most striking symptom of this infection. The uncontrollable coughing spasms produce a distinctive “whooping” sound when patients try to breathe, and can lead to vomiting, loss of consciousness, and choking. Whooping cough begins with symptoms similar to the common cold – fever and runny nose. About a week later, patients start experiencing deep and violent coughing spells that make it hard to breathe. This cough usually lasts one to six weeks, but may persist up to 10 weeks.

How do I protect myself against whooping cough?

Dr. Schuchat says people who are not vaccinated have eight times the risk of infection compared to people who are fully vaccinated against whooping cough. If someone who’s been vaccinated does get whooping cough, the disease is usually less serious and they are far less likely to infect someone else.

The DTaP vaccine is a recommended childhood immunization that is given to children at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15-18 months, and 4-6 years. Kids should get five doses to be fully protected.

The vaccine combination not only protects against whooping cough but also diphtheria and tetanus, which are other bacterial infections with severe health risks for patients. Because immunity against this bug goes down over time, booster shots are recommended in people ages 11-64.

“Vaccines have done a good job of reducing the incidence of pertussis but our vaccines aren’t perfect,” Dr. Schuchat said. “We wish we had better ways of controlling pertussis. Given how dangerous pertussis is for babies, preventing infection in babies is our priority.”

While adults are supposed to have at least one dose of whooping cough vaccine, only 8.2 percent of U.S. adults have done so.

What do I do if I think I have it?

See your doctor immediately for diagnosis and treatment. Treatment includes antibiotics such as erythromycin if the infection is caught early enough. Babies with whooping cough are usually treated in the hospital because they are at higher risk for severe complications.

To prevent yourself from spreading whooping cough to others, wear a face mask or cover your mouth when coughing. Do not go near babies and young children because they are very susceptible to the disease. Make sure everyone in your household is vaccinated and protected against pertussis.

For more information visit the CDC’s website.

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