Preventing Pertussis

Pertussis (whooping cough) is very contagious and can cause serious illness – especially in infants who are too young to be fully vaccinated.  Make sure your infants and young children get their recommended five shots on time.  Adolescent and adult vaccination is also important, especially for families with new infants.

Currently, several states are reporting an increase in whooping cough cases, including a state-wide epidemic in California.  Pediatricians and public health officials are using this outbreak to remind parents to have their children - and themselves -  vaccinated and to encourage grandparents and older caregivers to get a booster shot if they are around small children and babies because neither immunization nor having had the disease guarantees lifelong protection.  Take action by making sure you and your loved ones are up to date with vaccinations.  This includes DTaP vaccination for infants and children and Tdap booster for adolescents and adults.

Pertussis can cause serious illness in infants, children and adults.  The disease starts like the common cold, with runny nose or congestion, sneezing, and maybe mild cough or fever.  After 1-2 weeks, severe coughing begins, which can last for 100 days.   Infants and children with the disease cough violently and rapidly, over and over, until the air is gone from their lungs and they are forced to inhale with a loud “whooping” sound.  Pertussis is most severe for babies; more than half of the infants under 1 year of age who get the disease must be hospitalized.  About 1 in 5 infants with pertussis get pneumonia and about 1 in 100 will have convulsions.  In rare cases, pertussis can be deadly, especially in infants.

People with pertussis usually spread the disease by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others, who then breathe in the pertussis bacteria.  Many infants who get pertussis are infected by parents, older siblings, or other caregivers who might not even know they have the disease.

Since the 1980s, there’s been an increase in the number of cases of pertussis, especially among 10-19 year olds and babies less than 6 months of age.  In 2009, there were nearly 17,000 reported cases including 14 deaths from pertussis nationally.  Experts say that many more cases are likely to have occurred because the illness is underreported.  Early symptoms mimic those of a cold, so people may think the cough will go away on its own and they don’t see a doctor.  If they do, the physician may provide treatment, but not test for pertussis.

The best way to prevent pertussis is to get vaccinated.  In New York State, pertussis vaccine is required for all children born after January 1, 2005, who will be enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs and schools. Tdap vaccine is required for children born on or after January 1, 1994, and enrolling in the 6th grade. Parents can also help protect infants by keeping them away as much as possible from anyone who has cold symptoms or is coughing.  Anyone in contact with an infant under 12 months of age is encouraged to receive the Tdap vaccine in order to provide protection for the infant.

The Genesee County Health Department provides Pertussis vaccine (DTaP and Tdap) at its bi-monthly immunization clinics.  For those who are uninsured or underinsured, the pertussis vaccine is free to children 18 years of age and younger through the New York State Vaccine for Children’s Program (VFC).

The pertussis vaccine is also free to parents, grandparents, babysitters, child-care providers, teachers and school personnel and health care providers if their doctors don’t have it. This is through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) while supplies last. 

For more information or to make an appointment, contact the Genesee County Health Department at 344-2580, extension 5000.