Experts warn a whooping cough epidemic is ‘overdue’: Who’s at risk?

A doctor giving a vaccine

Health experts have sounded the alarm for a whooping cough outbreak, with data suggesting a resurgence of the disease may appear as early as this summer. 

Here’s a look at the symptoms to watch out for, who’s at risk of catching it and what treatment is available.

How common are whooping cough outbreaks?

They usually occur every three to four years. 

The last outbreak of whooping cough peaked in late 2015 with 22,570 confirmed cases in Australia.

As of 14 November this year, 1353 cases have been reported, according to the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS).

Given the last whooping cough outbreak was six years ago, the University of Sydney’s professor of paediatrics and child health, Robert Booy, says we’re “well overdue” for another.

“It’s only a matter of time before we see a resurgence of whooping cough, quite possibly in the spring and summer months when infections traditionally spike,” Prof. Booy said.

“Whooping cough follows a fairly predictable pattern and it’s very much the sleeping bear of respiratory infectious disease right now.”

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is a bacterial infection caused by Bordetella pertussis that attacks the lungs and airways, causing uncontrollable coughing and difficulty breathing.

The ‘whoop’ refers to the sound people can make when gasping for air after a fit of coughing.

Unlike a normal cough, whooping cough fits can be severe to the point of causing vomiting, broken ribs, pneumonia, brain damage and sometimes, death.

Whooping cough is also known as the ‘hundred-day cough’.

How long does whooping cough last?

According to the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, whooping cough starts with cold-like symptoms, which can last for about one to two weeks.

After that, the coughing fits begin. They can last for 10 weeks or more.

The whole illness can last for up to three months from beginning to end.

Is whooping cough contagious?

Yes, whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection.

Infection is easily spread by droplets of fluid in the air from coughing and sneezing.

Research suggests whooping cough is more contagious than influenza, measles, or COVID-19.

Once infected, a person can remain contagious for three weeks or until they complete a full course of antibiotics.

“People with an ongoing cough should practice social distancing and seek immediate medical advice,” Prof. Booy said.

“Increased levels of socialising and travel during the festive season facilitate the spread of airborne bacteria like whooping cough, so vigilance is required.”

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

In the early stages of infection, people may experience symptoms similar to the common cold:

  • runny nose
  • sneezing
  • mild cough
  • fever.

These mild symptoms can then rapidly progress to include:

  • severe cough – occurs in long, uncontrollable bouts
  • characteristic ‘whooping’ sound on inhalation
  • vomiting at the end of a bout of coughing
  • fainting
  • poor bladder control (urinary incontinence).

If you or your child has trouble breathing or turns blue, call 000 immediately.

Who is at risk of whooping cough?

Anyone of any age can catch whooping cough, however, some groups are at greater risk.

These include:

  • people who have not been vaccinated against whooping cough
  • people who have not received a whooping cough booster vaccine in the past 10 years
  • babies under six months old because they are not old enough to get vaccinated
  • people living in the same house as someone with whooping cough.

IFA founder Catherine Hughes says there is still more to be done when it comes to reducing the spread of the virus in the community.

“Most people associate whooping cough with babies, but more than half of all cases are reported in adults,” Ms Hughes said.

“Whooping cough can be fatal in infants and can cause serious illness in older children and adults.

“This is particularly true for those with asthma, who are at four times greater risk of infection and higher risk of being admitted to hospital.”

Is there any treatment available for whooping cough?

Antibiotics are used to kill the bacteria causing the cough and help speed up recovery.

You can also try to relieve symptoms with these self-care tips:

  • get plenty of rest
  • drink plenty of fluids
  • avoid irritants that could trigger coughing spells, e.g. smoke.

How effective is the whooping cough vaccine?

National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS) senior staff specialist Nicholas Wood said the biggest risk group for whooping cough is unvaccinated infants usually under six months.

“The real group we want to protect is the young infants and this is where the maternal vaccine comes in,” Prof.Wood said.

“The first vaccine young infants get is from the mother getting a vaccine during pregnancy. The coverage of the maternal vaccine is 80 to 90 per cent effective in stopping young infants from getting hospitalised.”

But the older you are, the less effective the vaccine becomes.

“The vaccine doesn’t necessarily stop you from getting infected, but it might shorten the disease you may have and limit the chance of hospitalisation,” Prof. Wood said.

“For example, a 25-year-old male getting whooping cough will have an annoying cough but won’t likely end up in hospital.”

As with many vaccines, there are possible side-effects, which are listed on the federal government’s website.

Who should get vaccinated against whooping cough?

Immunisation against whooping cough is recommended for the following people:

  • infants: six  doses of vaccine usually at two months, four months and six months, 18 months, and four years
  • children aged between 11-13 years, usually given in the school immunisation program
  • pregnant women between 20-32 weeks of every pregnancy
  • adults who have been in contact with babies under six months
  • adults at ages 50 and 65 and over
  • healthcare workers who have not had a booster in the past 10 years
  • childcare workers who have not had the booster in the past 10 years
  • people travelling overseas who have not had a booster in the past 10 years.

Vaccination is free through the National Immunisation Program for pregnant women, people under 20 years of age and refugees entering Australia at any age.

How many years does the vaccine last?

A whooping cough booster vaccine is recommended every 10 years, but Prof. Wood said that was not an absolute rule.

“What we know is that a whooping cough booster vaccine, taken on average at about the 10-year mark, just bounces your antibodies up enough so that if you do get exposed to the bacteria, you won’t get as sick and therefore transmit it to others,” he said.

Australians can check their vaccination status by talking to a doctor, pharmacist, or by accessing their Immunisation History Statement via the Medicare app.

2020 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.
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