If you’ve read or watched the news lately, you may have heard about an increase in pertussis, or “whooping cough,” infections. Several states are now reporting new cases, including West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island and Maine.
Pertussis is caused by bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. It causes respiratory illness that starts out like the common cold, with symptoms like a runny nose and low fever. After a week or two of illness, people infected often develop exhausting fits of coughing, which sometimes end with a “whooping” sound — hence the nickname, “whooping cough.” (Here’s what a young girl with whooping cough sounds like.) The coughing is so violent that it can cause people to vomit, pass out or even fracture their ribs. In other words, it’s a serious illness. Read more about pertussis on the National Foundation for Infectious Disease’s website.
Without treatment, pertussis can last for 6-10 weeks. While 10 weeks of violent coughing may sound terrible for anyone, babies are at especially high risk. More than half of infants that contract pertussis are hospitalized each year with life-threatening complications. In the U.S., 25 of the 27 deaths from pertussis in 2010 were babies who were less than a year old.
That’s the bad news. The good news about pertussis is this: There’s a vaccine for that! (Actually, there are two: One for babies and one for older children and adults.)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that babies get a series of shots called DTaP at 2, 4 and 6 months of age, and then two booster shots.
Older children and adults also need to be immunized regularly — even people who were immunized as a baby aren’t protected for life. The shot for teens and adults is called Tdap, and it’s recommended that most people get a booster shot about every 10 years.
This is especially true for pregnant women, new parents and anyone who spends time around newborn babies, because parents, older children and other caregivers can spread the disease to a new baby in their family without knowing it. You can listen to one mother’s story in this video from Parents of Kids with Infectious Diseases, an organization that provides educational information.
[Video: One family’s struggles with pertussis, from Parents of Kids with Infectious Diseases, via CDC.]
You can read more about pertussis vaccinations on CDC’s website. If you think it’s been a while since you’ve had a Tdap shot, the best thing to do is to contact your health care provider.
To end this post on a happy note, here is some good news from California: The state had a large outbreak of pertussis in 2010, which we wrote about on the Get Ready Blog. Hoping to control the outbreak, state health officials launched a big effort to educate and vaccinate people of all ages — and their hard work paid off! The California Department of Public Health announced last week that the number of pertussis cases dropped by more than two-thirds last year (dropping from 9,154 cases in 2010 to 2,795 cases in 2011). And even better, there were no reported deaths from pertussis in 2011.
So there you have it: The vaccine is your best defense against pertussis. Make sure your immunizations are up to date today so that you can be ready if whooping cough comes your way tomorrow!