Health Officials Warn of Whooping Cough Epidemic

Aileen M. Marty, M.D.
Director, FIU Health Travel Medicine Program

Health Officials Warn of Whooping Cough EpidemicAn outbreak of whooping cough in California has reached “epidemic proportions.” The California state public health department reports nearly 3,500 cases including one death in 2014, with more than 800 cases reported in the past two weeks alone!

Whooping cough is a terrible, often deadly, and highly contagious disease also known as pertussis. It was a notorious major childhood illness and a leading cause of death in the pre-vaccine era.  The bacterium (Bordetella pertussis) responsible for this disease causes 89,000 deaths a year worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Pertussis has killed nearly 300 children in the United States since 2000, almost all of them babies younger than 3 months old.

Whooping cough starts with the usual cold-like symptoms: runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, mild cough, but it lasts for months (10 weeks).  After the first week or so of infection the cough becomes worse and worse.

In children the severe coughing fits cause them to gasp for breath and make the classic "whooping" sound that gives this infection its common name. These terrifying coughing fits, which take place mostly at night, make it hard to breathe, eat, drink, or sleep. Babies may stop breathing and both babies and young children often turn blue from lack of oxygen, and may vomit after the fit. The coughing fits can recur with the next respiratory infection.

Whooping Cough can be prevented with a Vaccine

A recent study conducted at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that vaccine refusals are fueling California's whooping cough epidemic. Other factors driving the epidemic include a recent mutation in the bacterium and the fact that vaccine protection wears off. This is why it is critical to be up-to-date on your vaccine.

There are vaccines for infants, children, preteens, teens and adults. The childhood vaccine is called DTaP, and the pertussis booster vaccine for adolescents and adults is called Tdap.  It is strongly recommended that pregnant women receive the vaccine; in fact the recommendation is that women should receive the vaccine during each pregnancy irrespective of the patient's prior history of receiving Tdap (or Td).

If you are travelling to California or other areas with a high incidence of this infection, see a travel medicine specialist and make sure you are up to date on your pertussis vaccine. 

FIU Health Travel Medicine Program and Vaccine Clinic appointments are available by calling 305-FIU-DOCS (305-348-3627).

June 25, 2014