Pertussis Is Preventable With Vaccination


Lately, the words “whooping cough” have become synonymous with epidemic, especially in California, where it has been on the rise for months. Pertussis, although not curable, is preventable through vaccination. Pertussis is a highly contagious respiratory infection caused by a bacterium called Bordetella pertussis. They become attached to the cilia in upper respiratory system and release toxins, which damage the cilia causing them to swell.

The disease is only found in humans and is spread from one person to another. It is usually spread by cough and sneezing within close proximity to others. The Pertussis bacteria is breathed in by others and they become infected. Often infants who become infected with Pertussis get it from family members, including parents, who may not be aware they have the disease. Symptoms usually develop within seven to 10 days, but the disease can incubate for up to six weeks.

Although there is no cure for the disease, vaccination can help prevent Pertussis. The vaccine may not prevent 100 percent of whooping cough cases, but it is the most effective way to avoid catching it. When the disease has reached epidemic levels, as it has in California, the still a chance that someone who has been vaccinated can catch it. However, the chances of catching the disease are greatly decreased and it is usually less severe if infection occurs according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The symptoms of Pertussis resemble cold or flu symptoms such as a minor cough, fever and runny nose. After a week or two, the cough becomes more severe and develop into a series of coughing fits that for weeks. The disease is dangerous in infants because the symptoms can differ. There may be little coughing or no coughing at all. Instead it may present with apnea, a condition in which breathing stops. According to the CDC half of all infants less than one year old, who get pertussis are hospitalized.

In children the disease may cause violent and rapid continuous coughing, until there is no air left in the lungs. When this happens they are forced to inhale which causes a loud whooping sound, giving it the name whooping cough. The coughing can cause vomiting and exhaustion. When teens and adults get the disease, the “whoop” is often absent and the infection is markedly less severe, especially in individuals who have been vaccinated.

The disease can have serious complications for some who get it. According to CDC infants who are hospitalized have the greatest risk such complications. One in 4 infants who are hospitalized with pertussis get a lung infection. Of every 100 one or two hospitalized infants will have convulsions. Two-thirds of infants will have apnea, one in 300 will develop a brain disease, and one or two in 100 will die.

Less than 5 percent of teens and adults who get the disease require hospitalization, but they do experience other complications. Thirty-three percent of teens and adults experience weight loss, 28 percent experience loss of bladder control, 6 percent experience passing out and 4 percent experience fracture ribs from severe coughing. Two percent of teens and adults develop pneumonia.

If Pertussis is suspected doctors can confirm it in a number of ways. They take into account the history of signs and symptoms, and might perform a physical vaccination. They might order a lab test, which requires taking a sample of secretions from the back of the throat through the nose, and/or they may order a blood test. If Pertussis diagnosed, it is treated with antibiotics.

The medical community has said repeatedly that the best way to prevent Pertussis among infants, children, teens and adults is vaccination. In DTaP vaccination, which prevents diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis is recommended for children. Children 12 and older, and adults require the Tdap booster, which protects against tetanus, diphtheria and Pertussis.

By Brandi M. Fleeks

California Department of Public Health
History of Vaccines
World Health Organization