Health experts have sounded the alarm over a whooping cough outbreak, with data suggesting a resurgence of the disease could appear as early as this summer.
Here’s a look at what symptoms to look out for, who is at risk of getting it, and what treatment is available.
How common are whooping cough outbreaks?
They usually occur every three to four years.
The latest whooping cough outbreak peaked in late 2015 with 22,570 confirmed cases in Australia.
As of November 14 this year, 1,353 cases had been reported, according to the National Notifiable Disease Surveillance System (NNDSS).
Given the last whooping cough outbreak was six years ago, University of Sydney professor of paediatrics and child health Robert Booy says we are “overdue” for another one.
“It is only a matter of time before we see a resurgence of whooping cough, most likely in the spring and summer when infections traditionally peak,” Professor Booy said.
“Pertussis follows a fairly predictable pattern and is currently the sleeping bear of respiratory infectious diseases.”
What is whooping cough?
Whooping cough is a bacterial infection caused by Bordetella whooping cough which attacks the lungs and respiratory tract, causing uncontrollable coughing and difficulty breathing.
The “scream” refers to the sound people may make when gasping for air after a coughing fit.
Unlike a regular cough, whooping cough attacks 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 in Melbourne, whooping cough begins with cold-like symptoms, which can last for about 1 to 2 weeks.
After that, the coughing fits begin. They can last 10 weeks or more.
THE the entire illness can last up to three months From beginning to end.
Is whooping cough contagious?
Yes, whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection.
The infection spreads easily through droplets of fluid in the air from coughs and sneezes.
Research suggests that whooping cough is more contagious than the flu, 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 a persistent cough should practice social distancing and seek medical attention immediately,” Professor Booy said.
“Increased levels of socializing and travel during the holiday 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
- Mild cough
These mild symptoms can then progress quickly to include:
- Severe cough — occurs during long, uncontrollable attacks
- Characteristic “whooping cough” sound when inhaled
- Vomiting at the end of a coughing fit
- Poor bladder control (urinary incontinence)
If you or your child has difficulty breathing or turns blue, call 000 immediately.
Who is at risk for whooping cough?
Anyone from any age can get whooping coughhowever, certain groups are more at risk.
- People not vaccinated against whooping cough
- People who have not received a pertussis vaccine booster in the past 10 years
- Babies under 6 months old because they are not old enough to be vaccinated
- People living in the same house as someone with whooping cough
IFA founder Catherine Hughes says more needs to be done to reduce 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 cause serious illness in older children and adults.
“This is particularly true for people with asthma, who have a four times higher risk of infection and a higher risk of being admitted to hospital.”
Is there a treatment for whooping cough?
Antibiotics are used to kill cough-causing bacteria and help speed healing.
You can also try to relieve symptoms with these self-care tips:
- Get enough rest
- Drink plenty of fluids
- Avoid irritants that could trigger coughing fits, such as smoke.
How effective is the whooping cough vaccine?
National Center for Immunization Research and Surveillance (NCIRS) specialist Nicholas Wood said the highest risk group for whooping cough is unvaccinated infants, usually younger than six months.
“The real group we want to protect is young infants and that’s where the maternal vaccine comes in,” Professor Wood said.
“The first vaccine young infants receive comes from the mother who is vaccinated during pregnancy. Maternal vaccination coverage is 80 to 90 percent effective in preventing young infants from being hospitalized.”
But the older you areTHE the vaccine becomes less effective.
“The vaccine does not necessarily prevent you from becoming infected, but it can shorten the duration of illness and reduce the risk of hospitalization,” Professor Wood said.
“For example, a 25-year-old man who has whooping cough will have an annoying cough but probably won’t end up in the hospital.”
As with many vaccines, there are possible side effects, which are listed on federal government website.
Who should get vaccinated against whooping cough?
Vaccination 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 11 to 13, usually given as part of the school vaccination program
- Pregnant women between 20 and 32 weeks after each pregnancy
- Adults who have been in contact with babies under six months
- Adults aged 50 to 65 and over
- Healthcare workers who have not received a reminder in the last 10 years
- Educators who have not benefited from the booster in the last 10 years
- People traveling abroad who have not received a reminder in the last 10 years
Vaccination is free through the National Immunization Program for pregnant women, people under 20 and refugees entering Australia at any age.
How many years does the vaccine last?
A whooping cough vaccine booster is recommended every 10 years, but Professor Wood said this was not a hard and fast rule.
“What we know is that a pertussis booster vaccine, taken on average after about 10 years, just bounces your antibodies back enough so that if you’re exposed to the bacteria, you won’t get as sick and so pass it on to others,” he said.
Australians can check their vaccination status by speaking to a doctor, pharmacist or by accessing their vaccination history through the Medicare app.