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Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a highly contagious and very distressing disease. Worldwide, it kills about 250,000 children every year. In Australia, more than 5,000 cases of whooping cough are notified each year.
Whooping cough is caused by a bacteria that is spread by coughing or sneezing. It can cause severe prolonged bouts of coughing, with gasping for breath after the coughs. This gasping can cause a ‘whoop’ sound. Sometimes vomiting occurs after the coughing. The disease has been called ‘the hundred day cough’ because the cough may last from weeks to months.
There is no natural transfer of protection from mother to baby before birth, so a baby is at risk from birth.
Children less than one year old are the most vulnerable. Very young babies may not have the typical cough, but may have episodes where they stop breathing. Of children younger than one year old who get whooping cough:
Whooping cough is a preventable childhood disease. Vaccination can control it. How much protection a child receives from the vaccine depends on the number of doses the child has received, and the time since the last dose.
The immunisation schedule for whooping cough starts at 6 weeks age, with three doses in the first six months of life. Booster doses are given at four years of age and between 11-15 years.
This vaccine not only protects against whooping cough, but also diphtheria and tetanus.
Vaccination for adults is also recommended before planning a pregnancy, or for both parents as soon as the baby is born. It is also recommended for adults working with young chidlren, especially health and child care workers.
Yes, the vaccine is safe and effective.
Sometimes reactions may occur after immunisation, such as fever, headache, or pain or swelling at the site of injection, but these are uncommon and usually mild. The risk of serious damage from whooping cough is hundreds of times greater than any risk that may be associated with the vaccine.
If children are not vaccinated, they face the much greater risk of brain inflammation and damage from the natural disease. In a million cases of whooping cough, this happens to 7,000 people.
The good news is that a new vaccine for whooping cough is now used in Australia. It has a much lower rate of side effects than the old vaccine.
It is just as effective as the old one, if not more so. The new vaccine is called acellular pertussis vaccine, because it is made from only parts of the killed germ, rather than the whole cell.
Where immunity to whooping cough in a community is low, young babies may be infected by older children or adults. This can happen before they are old enough to be protected by vaccination. These young children are the most likely to die or be damaged. Immunising your child not only protects your own child, but boosts the immunity of the community, thus protecting those who can’t protect themselves.
Talk to your family doctor about whooping cough vaccination for your children, and protect them from this distressing and common disease.