An Unwelcome Comeback —Whooping Cough Cases on the Rise

When is the last time you had a booster to protect yourself and your loved ones against the whooping cough? If it’s been more than 10 years, it’s time to get another — especially if you care for young children.

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a very contagious infection caused by the Bordetella pertussis bacteria and is most severe in children, said Ashish John, MD, a pediatrician with Koke Mill Medical Associates. The infection is characteristic of nonstop coughing fits during which the affected person has trouble catching a breath. When they do get the opportunity to inhale, they let out a distinct, deep “whoop” sound.

“In most children, you can hear it very quickly,” Dr. John said. “If you hear nonstop coughing fits that they can’t seem to get out of, especially if it’s been going on for a certain period of time, that sends signals that we should be watching for whooping cough. In some cases, a child coughs so much, he or she also may vomit. It’s an infection that absolutely needs to be treated with an antibiotic, both to help them get better and prevent spread of infection.”

In recent years, the number of whooping cough cases reported in the country, including in Illinois, has increased. Dr. John said he’s definitely seen a resurgence in Springfield.

One thing he attributes to this resurgence is the lack of public awareness regarding how long the pertussis vaccine (given as either the “DTaP” to young children or “Tdap” to those who are older than 7 in the form of a booster) is effective.

“As the years go by, your immunity wanes, even if you had pertussis before,” Dr. John said.

The common schedule for protection against whooping cough involves a three-part initial DTaP vaccination series at age 2 months, 4 months and 6 months, and then a fourth installment at 15 months. The child again receives a DTaP vaccination with their kindergarten shots and should get a Tdap booster at age 10 or 11.

Dr. John said two populations are more likely to contract and pass on pertussis: members of the older population who never had the whooping cough vaccination as an infant, and adolescents who haven’t received a Tdap booster at age 10 or 11.

It’s important that anyone who contracts the whooping cough infection not be around young infants, as newborns have no real protection against it, other than any maternal antibodies passed on from their mother, until their first vaccination at 2 months. Pertussis in an infant is “almost a near-fatal experience,” Dr. John said.

He recommends that all new parents, and any frequent visitors or caregivers, receive a whooping cough booster immediately following a child’s birth. Many hospitals, including all three Memorial Health System hospitals, offer the booster to the mother following a child’s birth. Boosters last about five to 10 years.

And to be on the safe side, Dr. John suggests that any family members who exhibit signs of a nagging cough limit their contact with the baby or wear a paper mask over their nose and mouth.