Whooping cough alert: Get a booster before school starts

Pertussis remains a major problem, so make sure your child is protected

Last updated: August 06, 2015 08:45 AM

The words “whooping cough” conjure up a bygone era of gravely sick babies and desperate parents hoping their feverish, hacking children make it through the night. The devastating disease, called pertussis, is characterized by several weeks, or even months, of low-grade fever and incessant bouts of rapid coughing that have a "whoop" sound (you can listen to it here) as the child tries desperately to expel thick throat mucus. At its worst, the disease can bring on pneumonia and, due to lack of oxygen during the coughing spells, even seizures and death.

Well, it’s back. Last year, there were 17,873 cases of pertussis reported to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And so far in 2015 there have been 10,209 cases reported. In fact, the number of pertussis cases has been steadily rising since the 1980s, hitting a 50-year high of 48,277 in 2012. Why would a disease that had nearly been wiped out after a highly effective vaccine was introduced in the 1940s now be making a comeback?

Learn more about the vaccines children and adults need.

Experts aren’t entirely sure, but point to a variety of causes, including more parents choosing not to vaccinate their children. That failure, in turn, has allowed for the extremely contagious Bordetella pertussis bacteria to circulate more freely.

The vaccine’s effectiveness also appears to wane over time. A 2015 review of studies in the journal Pediatrics concluded that the vast majority of children who had been vaccinated in their first years of life were no longer protected against pertussis by the time they received their scheduled Tdap booster in their teens. One possible explanation for this loss of immunity is that new strains of B. pertussis may have developed since the current vaccine was first introduced in 1991.

Has your child had whooping cough?

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The CDC is now analyzing data from around the country to see if it should change recommendations for how often people need to be vaccinated or receive booster shots.

In the meantime, our advice remains unchanged: All children should have the entire five-shot series of DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) vaccinations between the ages of 2 months and enrollment in kindergarten. Adolescents, adults, and pregnant women (ideally between 27 and 36 weeks) should get a Tdap booster shot if they’re unsure if they’ve had one—unless, of course, they’ve previously had a severe (and extremely rare) allergic reaction. 

If your child develops pertussis, antibiotics remain the treatment of choice.  But while the antibiotics long used to treat confirmed cases of pertussis continue to work well, some pockets of antibiotic-resistant strains of B. pertussis have been reported. (Read more about the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.)

It doesn't really matter whether you get vaccinated at your doctor's office or at your local pharmacy.  The important thing is to just get vaccinated.

—Chris Hendel

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