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Children's Hospital Sees Pertussis Increase


Children’s Hospital, along with the rest of California, has seen a dramatic increase in Pertussis cases since the first of this year.  There have been 36 cases diagnosed at Children’s since January 1, 2010, as opposed to only eight cases last year during the same time period.  Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a vaccine preventable disease that can be fatal.

Important points about pertussis:

  • Pertussis in adolescents and adults is often misdiagnosed by physicians.
  • It is most often incorrectly diagnosed as bronchitis or asthma.
  • Infants most often catch pertussis from an older family member.
  • The initial symptoms of pertussis in small babies are often deceivingly mild. They include a runny nose and mild cough. There usually is no fever. The illness may be mild for a few days and then suddenly get worse and cause severe respiratory distress.
  • Pertussis is preventable with up-to-date age appropriate immunizations.

Pertussis is a serious infection of the respiratory tract caused by Bordetella pertussis bacteria, and is most severe in infants under one year. The early symptoms are similar to a common cold, and include a runny nose, sneezing, mild fever, and dry cough.  These are followed by severe coughing spells that last for over a minute.  Between coughing spells the child may gasp for air with a characteristic “whooping” sound, hence the term “whooping cough.” Pertussis causes about 10-15 deaths a year in the United States, generally in infants.  It also occurs in teenagers and adults, but the illness is less severe and more likely to be misdiagnosed.

Pertussis is highly contagious, and is spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes.  The incubation period is normally 7 to 10 days, but can range from 5 to 21 days.  Pertussis is treated with antibiotics and may require hospitalization.

Pertussis vaccine became available in the United States during the 1940s and since widespread use began, the incidence of the disease has dropped by 98%. Pertussis is largely preventable by routine immunization of infants and children using the DTaP vaccine.  Unfortunately even vaccinated people lose much of their immunity by the age of ten, so most adolescents and adults are only partially protected. For that age group pertussis is usually a mild illness and may be mistaken for a common cold with a lingering cough.

Parents should contact their primary care physician when their child has a moderate to severe cough, especially if the child experiences prolonged coughing spells, turns red or blue, the coughing is followed by vomiting, or occurs together with a “whooping” sound when the child breathes in.  The best way for parents to avoid pertussis is to keep children up to date with their routine childhood immunizations, including the DTaP vaccine.