Whooping cough cases spike in what could be worst outbreak in 50 years

Health officials say whooping cough is poised to make a brassy comeback, with the number of reported cases climbing at a pace that will surpass every year since 1959.

A July tally had the case total thus far at an astounding 18,000 — more than twice as many as the number of cases reported in July 2011 — an upsurge some health authorities are attributing to a switch in vaccine types made 15 years prior in 1990.

"We may need to go back to 1959 to find as many cases reported," said Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

Pertussis, comonly known as whooping cough, leads to hospitalization for half of the babies who contract it. Infection rates are at their highest in infants younger than 12 months old. As is current practice, 95 percent of toddlers are vaccinated against pertussis, while 8.2 percent of adults receive the vaccination warding off the disease. It is the latter group though, that often passes whooping cough onto infants. Children receive five vaccinations that help in the prevention of whooping cough, the last of which is administered when the patient is 4 to 6 years of age. Thereafter, a booster shot is given at age 11, but given the long span of time, immunity for pertussis has been known to wane in adult years.

Although officials remain unsure exactly why this sudden rise in pertussis is occurring, there are patterns of the disease fluctuating in three to five year increments. Children who are not vaccinated are eight times more likely to contract pertussis Schuchat noted.

"Without the vaccine, we know that we would have hundreds of thousands of pertussis cases each year," she said. "That's why we're recommending a booster at 11 or 12."

It is recommended that pregnant women and adults be encouraged by their physicians to get a Tdap booster vaccine, which protects against other illnesses such as tetanus and diphtheria as well. While the disease may not elicit a great deal of harm in adults, receiving the booster shot could save the life of a child, officials concluded.  

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