● Lurking in the shadows
● The importance of vaccination
● Vaccination is safe
● Protecting your family
Whooping cough, also known as 'pertussis' after the bacteria that causes it, is a bacterial infection of the upper airway.
The infection and the toxins produced by Bordetella pertussis affect the lungs and heart, so not enough oxygen gets to the rest of the important organs in the body and they shut down. The lack of oxygen to the brain and other organs means that even if you survive whooping cough, you can be left with serious health problems, including brain damage.
Who would have thought a cough could be so dangerous? Whooping cough was a major killer of children and adults up until the 1940s. The number of cases of whooping cough plummeted with the introduction of a vaccine to Bordetella pertussis and widespread vaccination programs that saved millions of lives.
That's excellent news, right?
No need to worry about it anymore?
Well, not quite.
Lurking in the shadows
Bordetella pertussis is a very common bacteria, and it lives in humans quite happily. We just don't get as sick from it anymore because we've all been vaccinated. It's quite possible that you, or someone you know, has had whooping cough but didn't know it. The symptoms are much the same as a really bad cold with a cough that lasts for weeks and weeks. The characteristic 'whoop' that gives the disease its name comes from the large gasp of air we take in after a fit of prolonged coughing, but not everyone 'whoops' so it can be hard to distinguish whooping cough from a viral illness. Once the infection is established, usually after you've figured out this isn't 'just a cold', antibiotics aren't effective.
Whooping cough is very easy to spread. When you cough, droplets of water and mucous carrying the bacteria spray out into the air, and anyone close who inhales the droplets will give the bacteria a new home. This means that anyone you live with, work with, or spend any significant time with, is also highly likely to get whooping cough. Even though antibiotics won't make you feel better any faster, a doctor will prescribe antibiotics to someone with a known case of whooping cough, and the people around them, to prevent the infection spreading.
The importance of vaccination
While whooping cough is not-life threatening for healthy adults, it can be fatal for babies and those with serious illness. Vaccination is the only way to keep them safe. Newborn babies are particularly vulnerable because they don't have any immunity against whooping cough and can't be vaccinated for the first 6 weeks after birth. Whooping cough in babies is a very serious illness and they can sometimes die (see Riley's story). Newborn babies rely on the immunity of the people around them - parents, siblings, grandparents and carers - to protect them from infection. We call this 'herd' immunity.
Mothers can provide excellent protection for their babies by having a whooping cough vaccine in the second half of every pregnancy. Vaccination increases the production of antibodies against whooping cough. Antibodies are molecules that protect us against infection by killing the pertussis bacteria before it has a chance to make us sick. The antibodies transfer from Mum to baby through the placenta before birth and protect the baby until the baby's immune system develops. Antibodies are also passed to the baby though breast milk, so breast feeding is another good way to help protect your baby. We know that vaccination reduces the risk of babies contracting whooping cough by 90%.
Babies receive a vaccine to whooping cough at 6-8 weeks, 4 and 6 months, and 4 years of age, together with vaccines to diphtheria and tetanus. By this time, the baby's immune system is capable of making its own antibodies and they rely less on the 'herd' immunity of those around them. We recommend that toddlers get a booster vaccination at 18 months old to make sure they are fully protected against whooping cough. We also recommend booster vaccination for anyone who will come into contact with a newborn baby, including dads, siblings, grandparents and carers.
Vaccination is safe
We know there are concerns in the community about vaccine safety. No medical procedure is 100% safe, but the potential side effects from a vaccine, which include pain or swelling at the injection site, or a mild fever, are treatable and don't last long. The risks to your baby if they catch whooping cough are so much worse (see Riley's story). The original whooping cough vaccine was replaced in the 1990s with the current vaccine which has fewer side effects. Although the current vaccine provides excellent protection against whooping cough in the short term, some experts suspect the current vaccine isn't as effective in maintaining our immunity for as long as predicted. This may be part of the reason why there has been a rise in the number of cases of whooping cough in the last decade (graph), even in immunised children and adults. Our researchers are examining the safety and effectiveness of the whooping cough vaccine in mothers and children in a number of different studies. You can read about our studies here.
Protecting your family
Whooping cough may not be the threat it was to our grandparent's generation, but it hasn't gone away. Whooping cough can still make us sick, but it is newborn babies that are at greatest risk of serious illness and even death if they catch whooping cough. Vaccination is the best way to protect everyone against whooping cough, so it is important to make sure your and your children's vaccinations are up to date. Mothers can protect their babies by being vaccinated against whooping cough in the second half of each pregnancy, which will provide protection until the baby can be vaccinated and develop their own protection against whooping cough.