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Kristin Hayes, R.N.

The U.S. Experiences its Worst Whooping Cough Outbreak in Half a Century

By August 28, 2012

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As public opinion on vaccinations falls to an all time low, the United States is supposedly experiencing its worst outbreak of whooping cough in 50 years. Whooping cough, also called pertussis, can be deadly to infants and children while it usually only causes mild symptoms in adults. Some adults develop nothing but a mysterious cough which can take months to diagnose. Whooping cough was largely eradicated when the vaccine for it was developed but has been making a comeback in recent years.

While studies have shown that vaccines have sharply fallen out of favor in the U.S. that doesn't prove that failures to vaccinate are causing the outbreak. In fact, officials are reportedly planning to study the current vaccines for whooping cough on suspicion that the vaccines are not effective. However, there are several reasons that increasing public awareness will be necessary to stop the spread of this illness.

Even among Americans who are in favor of vaccines many adults do not have immunity against whooping cough. That's because our childhood immunizations against pertussis (DtAP) don't last forever. The problem is that adults don't know this. They mistakenly believe that because they were immunized against whooping cough as a child they will be immune to it for life. When an adult gets whooping cough they usually develop a mild illness - a cough and maybe some cold symptoms, which many do not seek treatment for. More severe cases of whooping cough in adults can baffle doctors. The Salt Lake Tribune reported a story about a school teacher who went to five different doctors before finally being diagnosed with whooping cough, all the while continuing to teach her 4th grade students.

When adults get pertussis they are able to unwittingly pass whooping cough on to small children, who sometimes develop deadly symptoms. Recent studies have shown that some children do not become fully immune to pertussis until they have had several booster shots of the vaccine, which is typically completed about the time the child enters kindergarten. After that the immunity can last, according to studies about 5-15 years, for some wearing off as young as age ten. A big part of halting the spread of pertussis is not getting our kids vaccinated but for adults and teens to get vaccinated.

If you are an adult or teenager experts recommend you receive a booster shot called Tdap rather than the DtAP vaccine that children and infants get. In 2009 I interviewed Alan R. Fleischman, MD, who is the vice president and medical director of The March of Dimes, at that time Dr. Fleischman estimated that only 1-2% of the adult population in the U.S. had received the Tdap vaccine. Many of those who have been vaccinated are healthcare workers.

Vaccines aren't the only way to prevent whooping cough, however, hand washing, covering your mouth when you cough and sneeze, staying at home when you're sick (and away from infants) are also good measures to prevent illness, with hand washing being the single most important factor in the spread of disease.

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