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What You Need to Know about Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

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What You Need to Know about Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

What You Need to Know about Whooping Cough

By Khrystyana Kirton
Edited by Stephanie Dawson
Reviewed By Nima Shei MD
Last Update: December 19th 2013

Pertussis, named after the bacterium Bordetella pertussis, starts the way of any cold or mild flu. Then a week or two later, the coughing starts. That’s because B. pertussis glom onto and paralyze the cilia, the lash-like filaments in airways that clear it of mucus, the stuff your body uses to trap and get rid of the infection. The bacterium also emits various toxins, some of which mask the infection and don’t allow your immune system to recognize and attack it. It therefore takes longer for your body to clear it and leaves your trachea so inflamed that it is sensitive even to things like water and air, leading to those wild coughing fits that sound like this in kids and this in adults.


While pertussis in this day and age seems absurd, it’s also tragic: in babies, the infection can easily be fatal. There’s a reason that we associate the whooping cough with the Dickensian: It is. The illness has, since the introduction of a pertussis vaccine in 1940, been conquered in the developed world. For two or three generations, we’ve come to think of it as an ailment suffered in sub-Saharan Africa or in Brontë novels – and it was, for those two or three generations. Until, that is, the anti-vaccination movement really got going in the last few years. Vaccinations work by creating something called herd immunity: When most of a population is immunized against a disease, it protects even those in it who are not vaccinated, either because they are pregnant or babies or old or sick. For herd immunity to work, 95 percent of the population needs to be immunized. But the anti-vaccinators have significantly reduced the number of immune people. In 2010, for example, only 91% of California kindergarteners were up to date on their shots. Unsurprisingly, California had a massive pertussis outbreak.

whooping cough

It would be an understatement to say that pertussis and other formerly conquered childhood diseases like measles and mumps are making a resurgence. Pertussis, specifically, has come roaring back. From 2011 to 2012, reported pertussis incidences rose more than threefold in 21 states. (And that’s just reported cases. Since we’re not primed to be on the look-out for it, many people may simply not realize they have it.) In 2012, the CDC said that the number of pertussis cases was higher than at any point in 50 years. That year, Washington state declared an epidemic; this year, Texas did, too. Washington, D.C. has also seen a dramatic increase. This fall, Cincinnati reported a 283% increase in pertussis.

It’s gotten to the point that pertussis has become a minor celebrity cause: NASCAR hero Jeff Gordon and actress Sarah Michelle Gellar are now encouraging people to get vaccinated. How responsible are non-vaccinating parents for pertussis’ comeback? Very. A recent study indicated that the outbreaks of these antiquated diseases are clustered where parents filed non-medical exemptions (where parents decide not to vaccinate their children due to personal beliefs). Areas with high concentrations of objectors were two and a half times more likely to have an outbreak. (To clarify: most of us have been vaccinated against pertussis as a child, but the vaccine wears off by adulthood, which was rarely a problem because the disease wasn’t running rampant due to people not vaccinating their kids.)

Whooping Cough is a humiliating and frightening cough that causes one to convulse several times a day to the point of vomiting or even soiling oneself. People who get whooping cough still need to go through a round of antibiotics (so the alleged “big pharma” is getting the money, regardless) to no longer be contagious. Even after the antibiotics, whooping cough can linger for several months.

Whooping Cough Symptoms, Mayoclinic
CDC Pinkbook
Community Immunity (“Herd Immunity”), Vaccines dot Gov
MMR Scare Doctor Acted Unethically, BBC News
Jenny McCarthy’s Dangerous Views, The New Yorker
Vaccine Refusals Fueled California’s Whooping Cough Epidemic, NPR
Pertussis Outbreak The Worst in 50 Years, ABC News
Whooping Cough In Children, CDC video
Whooping Cough in Adults, New England Journal of Medicine – http://www.nejm.org/action/showMediaPlayer?doi=10.1056/NEJMicm1111819&aid=NEJMicm1111819_attach_1&area&&

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