What is all the whoop about?

By Celia Hagan, Senior Specialist, Infectious Disease Programs, APHL

Infant getting a vaccine (Photo credit: James Gathany)It is National Immunization Awareness Month and what better time to remind friends, family members and coworkers to get their shot and boosters than in the midst of a whooping cough outbreak?  Recently, it seems that whooping cough outbreaks are everywhere.  This year large outbreaks in Washington, Minnesota and Wisconsin have made the national news. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 22,000 cases of whooping cough have been reported this year and, as of early July, 37 states have reported increases in pertussis as compared to the same time period in 2011.  As of 2010, the US had the highest number of whopping cough cases since 1959, and now we’re even higher.

But what’s all the whoop about? Whooping cough, also known as “pertussis,” is a respiratory tract infection caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis, which causes a violent, uncontrollable cough. In younger children a “whoop” noise is often heard when taking a breath through inflamed airways. Although illness is usually not severe in adults, whooping cough can cause serious, sometimes fatal complications in young children and infants. As of August 11th, 13 pertussis-related deaths had been reported in 2012, with the majority of those deaths in infants under 3 months.

With this dramatic increase in pertussis cases, public health laboratories have played a critical role in detecting and responding to outbreaks. Many states are experiencing a greater than threefold increase in whooping cough reporting as compared to last year. This means additional strain on public health laboratories to deal with the influx of testing. Debbie Gibson, the Microbiology and Molecular Laboratory Manager at the Montana Laboratory Services Bureau, says one of the biggest challenges in managing the surge while simultaneously maintaining the routine volume of daily testing. Fortunately, public health laboratories have plans in place to handle increases in volume, and the implementation of new, faster testing technologies has allowed public health laboratories to handle higher volumes of testing in shorter periods of time. Dave Mills, the Laboratory Director of New Mexico’s Scientific Laboratory Division, says that even when dealing with a threefold increase in specimens, the laboratory, which now uses PCR to test for whooping cough, can handle the increased volume efficiently.

While public health laboratories work to detect and respond to outbreaks, there are several things you can do to protect yourself and your family from whooping cough:

  •  Get vaccinated! (DTaP vs Tdap: DTaP is the vaccine given to children under 7 years old to build immunity.  Tdap is the booster vaccine given to people age 11 and older for continued immunity.  They both protect against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough).) Whooping cough can be life threatening to babies who are too young to be vaccinated, and adults are a common source of infection.  Also consider checking with any caregivers to be sure they are vaccinated. Remember, by getting this one-time booster shot, you not only protect yourself from whooping cough, but newborns as well. CDC recommends adults ages 19-64 who have never received a Tdap vaccine be vaccinated, especially pregnant women and adults who have close contact with infants.
  • Get your kids vaccinated! Talk to your pediatrician to make sure your children are up-to-date with whooping cough vaccines. CDC recommends a dose of Tdap for children 11 or 12; children under 6 years of age should receive four doses of the DTaP vaccine to protect against whooping cough.
  • Wash your hands and cover your cough! Whooping cough is spread through respiratory droplets when coughing, sneezing or talking. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze and wash your hands frequently.

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