Written by Anne Frances Johnson for UNC Health Care
CHAPEL HILL – Whooping cough is an old disease, but it’s alive and kicking. California has already reported seven times the number of cases in 2010 that it saw in all of 2009—a warning that we need renewed vigilance across the country to prevent the disease from spreading further.
Whooping cough, also called pertussis, is characterized by coughing so severe it often causes people to make a high-pitched “whooping” noise as they gasp for air. It’s a serious illness in adults and can be deadly in young children.
It’s also highly contagious, which is why experts in North Carolina are urging people to get their family members immunized now.
“Once all the kids go back to school, they’ll be more likely to transmit it back and forth,” said David Weber, MD, MPH, professor of medicine, pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Immunization is the way we’re really going to try and control this disease on a population basis.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all children get the DTaP vaccine, which protects against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. Immunity wanes over time, however, so teens and adults need booster shots. A vaccine introduced in 2005 known as Tdap boosts immunity for all three diseases.
On average one infant dies each year from whooping cough in North Carolina, according to the NC Immunization Branch. “It’s a really scary disease in babies because they don’t have the capacity to handle this kind of respiratory illness,” said Amy Caruso, a spokesperson for the branch.
Because babies haven’t yet completed their full immunization cycle, “Their only protection is the people around them,” said Caruso. As a result, getting immunized is particularly important for anyone who lives with a young child or who comes into contact with children at work, such as daycare workers, kindergarten teachers and health care workers.
“Something like 80 percent of the time a young child gets this disease it’s from a household member,” said Dr. Weber. “We're trying to get the herd immunity by immunizing everyone around young children.”
But the vaccines are not 100 percent effective, so it’s important for everyone to learn the signs of whooping cough—even those who have been immunized. So far, 68 cases have been reported in North Carolina in 2010. Experts believe the actual number could be higher because many who contract the disease do not see a doctor.
Know the Signs
- Initially, whooping cough looks similar to any other flu-like illness, with a runny nose or congestion, sneezing and a mild cough or fever.
- After 1-2 weeks, coughing becomes severe, causing violent coughing fits that may result in the characteristic “whooping” sound, or vomiting.
- Coughing continues for several weeks.
- Adults typically need to stay home from work for 1-2 weeks. Infants and young children may need to be hospitalized and are at a higher risk for pneumonia, convulsions and death.
Check Your Immunization Record
- Children should receive five shots of the DTaP vaccine, which protects against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. The first three shots are given at ages 2, 4, and 6 months. The fourth is given at 15-18 months of age, and a fifth shot is given at 4-6 years of age.
- Adults and teens over 12 years old require vaccine boosters. The Tdap vaccine, introduced in 2005, boosts immunity for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. It is required for all 6th graders and students entering college in North Carolina and is recommended for anyone who regularly comes into contact with young children.
If Whooping Cough is Suspected
- If you think you or your child may have whooping cough, call your doctor. He or she will assess the symptoms and may prescribe drugs to prevent the disease from spreading to others.
- If you or your child has been in close contact with someone who has whooping cough (such as a child in the same classroom), contact your doctor. Drugs are available that can protect against contracting the disease after an exposure.
- Information from the CDC: http://www.cdc.gov/Features/Pertussis
- Information from the NC Immunization Branch: http://www.immunizenc.org/Pertussis.htm
- Hear what whooping cough sounds like: http://www.whoopingcough.net/symptoms.htm
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