Take Action Now to Prevent Whooping Cough

Whooping cough is now a national health concern.  Earlier this year, the contagious disease reached epidemic levels in the state of Washington. Nationally—with more than 17,000 cases reported this year—it’s now at the highest level seen in the U.S. in over 50 years. I wrote about the re-emergence of whooping cough about a year ago. Since then, the disease has made a definite comeback. As of July 2012, the CDC reports 37 states have claimed increases in whooping cough compared with the same time period in 2011. Chances are you live in one of the states experiencing an increase of whooping cough. Here’s some information to help prevent whooping cough from sweeping through your own family this year.

What is whooping cough?

Also known as pertussis, it’s a highly contagious respiratory disease caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis. It can cause serious illness in infants, children and adults and can even be life-threatening, especially in babies, often requiring hospitalization. The disease is named for frightening whooping sound made when breathing as a result of the infection’s damage to the windpipe.

Who’s at risk for whooping cough?

Infants and children are at highest risk.  Whooping cough most commonly affects infants and young children and can be fatal, especially in babies less than 1 year of age. Infants have the highest rate of pertussis, followed by children 7-10 years old.  Rates are also increased in adolescents 13-14 years of age.  Family members often transmit the disease to each other as it’s easily spread by coughing and sneezing.

How do I recognize whooping cough?

After the typical incubation of 7-10 days from first exposure, whooping cough can start off harmlessly enough—like a cold, with a runny nose, sneezing and tiredness—and then cough develops. Older children and adults with whooping cough may experience mild symptoms or end up with several weeks of exhausting coughing. These coughing fits can leave one breathless and unable to eat, drink or sleep. Complications include pneumonia and even death.

Get vaccinated.

This is the best way to protect against whooping cough. The childhood vaccine is called DTaP, and the pertussis booster vaccine for adolescents and adults is called Tdap.  Vaccination recommendations according to the CDC are as follows:

  • Infants and children should receive 5 doses of the DTaP vaccine at 2, 4 and 6 months, at 15-18 months and at 4-6 years. All five doses are needed for maximum protection. Children 7-10 years of age who are not fully vaccinated with DTaP should receive a dose of Tdap instead of waiting for the 11-12 year old check up.
  • Adolescents should receive the Tdap vaccine at their regular check-up at age 11 or 12. If teenagers missed getting the Tdap vaccine, parents should ask their health care provider about getting it for them now.
  • Adults over 19 years who haven’t previously received a Tdap vaccine should get a one-time dose of Tdap in place of the Td booster they’re recommended to receive every 10 years. There’s no need to wait until you are due for your Td booster—the dose of Tdap can be given earlier than the 10-year mark since the last Td booster. Receiving Tdap may be especially important during a community outbreak and/or if caring for an infant.
  • Pregnant women who have not been previously vaccinated with Tdap should get one dose of Tdap during the third trimester or late second trimester – or immediately postpartum, before leaving the hospital or birthing center.   Vaccination of pregnant women and those in contact with infants is recommended to protect infants too young to be vaccinated and also protects the mother at time of delivery, making her less likely to transmit pertussis to her infant.

The booster vaccine is crucial.

New information from the analysis of the Washington epidemic shows a high rate of whooping cough among adolescents aged 13-14 years suggesting early declining of immunity from the form of the vaccine that was introduced some 15 years ago – the acellular vaccine (DTaP). This change in vaccine type was based in part on potential safety concerns with the older vaccine. Receiving the Tdap vaccine at the age of 11 or 12 years – in accordance with recommended regular checkups – protects against whooping cough.

State regulations allow pharmacists to administer a broad range of immunizations. Check with your local health professionals for the vaccinations recommended for you.

Be well. Stay well,

-Pharmacist Andy