Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

Whooping Cough

Pertussis, commonly known as Whooping Cough, is a very contagious respiratory infection that can persist for months. In China it is called a “hundred day” cough. The infection causes such harsh coughing fits that the sufferer may end up vomiting or breaking a rib. The “whoop” noise occurs when the person tries to breathe between coughs. Most children and adults will recover from whooping cough but it can be life threatening for the elderly and infants less than six months of age. The severe coughing episodes can lower the oxygen supply to the brain of very small babies causing fitting and brain damage.

In the early 20th century, Pertussis was a common and feared childhood disease with survivors sometimes suffering chronic lung problems. Since the introduction of widespread vaccination programs in the 1950s and 60s, the incidence rate of whooping cough has reduced by more than 90% in developed countries. Unfortunately the vaccine does not protect for life, and waning population immunity can result in breakouts occurring every 3-4 years. It is important that everyone continues to receive the whooping cough booster vaccine every 10 years. This will reduce the severity of illness and work/study time lostby sufferers. Maintaining high community levels of immunity also protects infants who are too young to be vaccinated.

Whooping cough remains a major health problem among children in less developed countries, and is responsible for more than 300,000 deaths annually. The WHO estimates that 95% of the 16 million cases of whooping cough (2008) were reported in less developed countries.

How is whooping cough transmitted?

Whooping cough is extremely contagious. The bacteria (Bordetella Pertussis) are transmitted from person to person via infected droplets in the air. When a person is in the early stage of the illness, it doesn’t seem much different from any ordinary cold. Hence people often spread the illness before the diagnosis becomes obvious. Diagnosis is made by taking a swab from high up the back of the throat. Once a member of the family is diagnosed, other members should be treated with antibiotics as soon as they notice any symptoms. In the first week of the illness this will be effective. Treatment with antibiotics after the early phase of the illness helps reduce the spread to others but doesn’t really reduce the long period of coughing for that individual.

Prevention of Whooping Cough

The most effective form of protection against whooping cough is vaccination. While not 100% effective, the whooping cough vaccine can significantly reduce the severity of symptoms. 

After the initial course of infant vaccinations, the booster doses of pertussis vaccine come as a combination vaccine with diphtheria and tetanus, or diphtheria/tetanus and polio. Natural infection with whooping cough does not provide long-term immunity, and booster doses of the vaccine are still recommended ten yearly.

Immunisation for Whooping Cough

Our doctors recognise the public health risk posed by whooping cough, especially for infants not yet old enough (6 weeks) to receive protection from immunisation. For children, protection against whooping cough and other vaccine preventable diseases is available under the Childhood Immunisation Schedule. These vaccines are free for Medicare-card holders, up to the age of 10 years. For those who do not have Medicare cover, (e.g. those with OSHC or Overseas Visitors Cover) we keep a private stock of all childhood vaccines, and encourage parents to speak with the doctor about vaccinating their children in line with the Australian Childhood Immunisation Schedule

For pregnant women, we maintain stock of the government funded combined diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine. This is free for women in their third trimester (last 3 months) of pregnancy.

University students are strongly encouraged to update their pertussis protection as the infection often circulates in crowded lecture rooms and causes many weeks of study to be lost.

Our friendly team of doctors and nurses are very experienced at providing immunisations with minimal fuss or waiting time. Aside from a mildly sore arm, side effects are unusual.

 

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