Whooping Cough (pertussis)

Page last updated: 20 April 2015

Whooping Cough (pertussis) is an extremely contagious respiratory infection caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. The disease causes uncontrolled coughing and vomiting, which can last for several months and can be particularly dangerous for babies under the age of 12 months.

Babies are at greatest risk of contracting whooping cough until they have had at least two doses of the vaccine (aged four months), as their mother’s antibodies do not provide reliable protection. About one in 200 infants under the age of six months who contract whooping cough will die from pneumonia or brain damage.

Increasing vaccination coverage has dramatically reduced the incidence of whooping cough among Australian children. However, it remains a highly infectious and dangerous disease. In a household where someone has whooping cough, an estimated 80-90% of the unimmunised contacts of that person will acquire the disease.

Causes

Whooping cough is spread through respiratory droplets, which can be transmitted in the air through coughing or sneezing, or from close contact with an infected person.

Symptoms

It takes between seven and 20 days after infection for the symptoms of whooping cough to appear. The disease begins like a cold, before the characteristic “whooping” cough develops. This cough may persist for several months, and lead to sleep disturbance and significant weight loss. Severe complications, which occur almost exclusively in unvaccinated people, include pneumonia (lung infection) and hypoxic encephalopathy (lack of oxygen to the brain).

Prevention

Immunisation with a dTpa-containing (diphtheria-tetanus-acellular pertussis) vaccine is the best way to reduce the risk of whooping cough in children. The combination vaccine, recommended as part of routine childhood immunisation, is free on the National Immunisation Program Schedule. Doses of vaccine are given at two, four and six months of age, with booster doses at four years and 10-15 years. To receive a child pertussis immunisation, visit your local doctor or immunisation provider. It is important to note that although the vaccine is provided at no cost, a consultation fee may apply.

In addition, The Australian Immunisation Handbook – 10th edition recommends a single booster dose of adult formulation pertussis vaccine (dTpa) for all adults planning a pregnancy, for both parents as soon as possible after delivery of an infant, and for grandparents and other carers of young children. Alternatively, dTpa can be given to women during the third trimester of pregnancy.

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