PERTUSSIS IS A common disease in the United States, with frequent outbreaks and periodic epidemics every three to five years. It is also called whooping cough because of the “whooping” sound people often make while gasping for air after a coughing fit.
Found only in humans, this highly contagious bacterial disease is spread from person to person, usually by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others.
In rare cases, pertussis can be fatal. Before routine child vaccination became widespread in the 1940s, pertussis caused thousands of fatalities each year in the U.S.
It starts off with cold-like symptoms, including:
• Runny nose
• Low-grade fever
• Mild, occasional cough
As the disease progresses, the traditional symptoms of pertussis appear, including:
• Fits of many rapid coughs followed by a high-pitched “whoop”
• Exhaustion following coughing fits
In infants, the cough can be minimal or not even there. Infants may have another symptom known as apnea — a pause in the child’s breathing pattern. Pertussis is most dangerous for babies, and more than half of infants younger than one year of age who get the disease must be hospitalized.
An adult booster shot for pertussis—called Tdap for tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis—has been available since 2005. Fewer than one in 10 adults have received the shot; most don’t even know they need it, learning about the booster
only when they see a doctor for a tetanus shot.
In 2010 California had a pertussis epidemic with more than 9,000 cases, including 10 deaths. Washington state just declared an epidemic in April, with the worst outbreak seen there in decades. State officials are seeking help from federal disease experts and are urging residents to get vaccinated amid worry that cases of the highly contagious disease are likely to spike much higher—perhaps as many as 3,000 cases by the end of 2012.
Outbreaks are also being monitored in counties California, Florida, Iowa, Montana, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin.
For more information, go to gov/pertussis.