Whooping cough

Immunisation – Whooping Cough (Pertussis) Vaccine

The chances of catching whooping cough, a very serious and potentially life threatening disease, are markedly reduced by ensuring you and your family are fully immunised (this includes booster shots for adults). There has been a rapid increase of whooping cough in New Zealand over the past few years and there is now an increased awareness about the disease in the broader community and a campaign to address the increasing rates of infection by encouraging more people to get the whooping cough vaccination.

In New Zealand we have an outbreak of the disease every three to five years. The most recent outbreak began in August 2011 and is still ongoing.

Whooping cough is more serious in babies under 1 and severe whooping cough can lead to pneumonia, fits and even brain damage or death.

Find out what to look for and how you can help your baby avoid catching whooping cough, and then decide if you would like to proceed with the vaccine for yourself and your bub.

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is a highly contagious, bacterial illness that initially affects the nose and throat. The infection then goes on to cause more mucus to develop, which creates the cough that may have the very identifiable ‘whoop’.

Whooping cough starts with similar symptoms to a common cold:

  • A runny nose,
  • Sore watery red eyes,
  • A low-grade fever, but not always,
  • A mild, irritating cough and
  • A general feeling of being unwell.

The second stage is where coughing fits develop, followed by a deep gasp or ‘whoop’, although not everyone has the classic whooping sound. It’s not uncommon for vomiting to occur after a bout of coughing as a child chokes on the mucus. Some babies may not cough, but simply stop breathing for a period of time. It is the inability to breath that causes the most problems for babies and can contribute to the cause of death in some infants.

A swab test from the back of the throat may confirm a case of whooping cough. An early diagnosis can mean quick treatment using antibiotics and thus less chance of spreading the disease. Symptoms may also be reduced by early treatment.

You can hear a small child with the identifiable sound of whooping cough here. Or go to www.whoopingcough.co.nz

How is Whooping Cough Spread?

Whooping cough is spread very easily through airborne droplets containing the bacteria. It can be easily spread though a runny nose, coughing, sneezing, sharing food or kissing between family members. Nine out of ten infants not yet fully vaccinated against whooping cough will catch it if someone in their household is infected.

Simply put, if your unimmunised baby is near someone who coughs or sneezes while they are in the infectious stage of the disease, it’s extremely likely that they will contract the disease.

Of course, stay well away from anyone you know that may be carrying the disease as whooping cough is very contagious.

A newly infected person will usually start to display symptoms around 7-10 days after coming into contact with the disease.

Baby Vaccination for Whooping Cough

It is recommended that all New Zealand babies receive their government funded immunisation against whooping cough at 6 weeks, 3 months and 5 months, and then again as a booster dose for children at 4 and 11 years. Your baby will not be immunised until after at least 2 or 3 doses of the whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine.

See the New Zealand Immunisation chart for further information.

As with most vaccines, the whooping cough vaccine will not absolutely guarantee that your baby will not get whooping cough. It will always be better for you and your baby to avoid contact with someone suspected of carrying the disease.

Who else should be immunised?

Adult immunity to whooping cough only lasts 10 years. In over 70% of cases newborns catch whooping cough from parents or close family members. Even if you have had whooping cough, or been vaccinated against it, immunity reduces over time; just like it does with tetanus vaccination, although it is not as well known. That’s why further booster vaccines are given to children when they 11 years old, and why adults need boosters every 10 years. It is recommended that all people who come into contact with young babies and children have a booster immunisation to help prevent the spread of the disease. In addition to childcare workers and nurses, you may like to consider having the booster shot for whooping cough yourself. A new parent or grandparent should definitely speak to their doctor about getting re-vaccinated to help protect their newborn child against whooping cough.

To protect infants, vaccinations are recommended for adults who;

  • live with, care for or work in regular contact with infants under 12 months of age, even if the baby has been fully immunised
  • are pregnant, especially in the later stages of pregnancy
  • are at high risk of severe illness or complications

Talk to your GP or practice nurse if you fall into any of these categories.

Whooping Cough and Pregnancy

Pregnant women from 20 weeks of pregnancy can receive the whooping cough vaccine (preferably during the third trimester) and so can breastfeeding women.

Due to the current whooping cough epidemic in New Zealand, pregnant women between 28-38 weeks gestation* are eligible for free Boostrix® vaccination against whooping cough until the current whooping cough outbreak is over.

Evidence suggests that along with on-time vaccination, the most effective way to prevent infants from catching whooping cough is to immunise pregnant women so that antibodies are transferred from mothers to babies potentially protecting them from the disease until they complete their primary course of vaccination. The vaccine also protects women from contracting whooping cough and passing it on to their baby.

*The decision to limit funded vaccination to 28-38 weeks gestation maximises the benefit of immunisation against whooping cough whilst being accountable for the use of public funds. After immunisation, protection against whooping cough takes up to two weeks to develop. Whilst immunisation between 38-40 weeks gestation is still safe for mother and baby, later immunisation means the newborn may still be exposed to the disease by their mother on delivery and/or during the first two weeks of life. Pregnant women can still choose to purchase Boostrix® privately after 38 weeks gestation or at any time after delivery.

If you suspect your child has whooping cough or you are concerned about your childs health call your GP or Practice Nurse. You can also phone Healthline free (within NZ) on 0800 611 116.

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Article last updated May 2015.