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Whooping Cough: Stop whooping cough now!

While there exists many diseases whose names are full of ambiguity, leaving patients and doctors-to-be puzzled and distraught, whooping cough is certainly not one of them. Whooping cough is fully deserving of its title, as it is literally a cough that ends in a wheezing whoop! Young children under 6 months are most vulnerable to the disease though older children and adults can also contract the infection. According to the World Health Organisation, 297 000 deaths were attributed to pertussis in 2000 alone. For younger infants, this disease can prove life threatening.

The medical term for Whooping cough is pertussis. Recorded cases of pertussis date back to the 1600’s and since then thousands of cases have been diagnosed each year. In the early twentieth century Whooping Cough was a leading cause of childhood deaths in the United States. Found all over the world, Whooping Cough has been a small but persistent survivor of modern history. In China, people have nicknamed Whooping Cough the “100 day cough” due to the prolonged cough attacks that accompany the infection.  In England and Wales, the disease is responsible for nearly nine deaths per year. In Australia, one baby dies every two years from the disease while others are left brain damaged by the infection. This disease may not wipe out thousands at a time but it is certainly worth being both cautious and aware of what causes the cough and what can be done to prevent it.

What is pertussis exactly? Pertussis is the result of the contraction of bacteria known as Bordetella Pertussis. Once a child has contracted the disease it can take anywhere between a few days and a few weeks for them to show symptoms. These symptoms often include a runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing, red watery eyes, mild fever, dry cough and loss of appetite. Normally there are three stages of whooping cough: The first stage lasts 1-2 weeks and is recognizable by the symptoms listed above. The second stage, which lasts 1-6 weeks, includes severe cough attacks experienced following a build-up of mucus and phlegm in the respiratory system.  After each episode it is normal to hear a sound resembling a “whoop” accompanied by a long and drawn out inhalation Following these attacks it is not unusual to experience vomiting or exhaustion. Younger infants are particularly vulnerable throughout this stage of the infection. It is common for small children and infants to turn red or blue during the attacks and cough up small doses of phlegm. The intense coughing experienced throughout this stage can often result in the rupture of red blood vessels at the surface of the skin of the upper body and bleeding in the white of the eyes. Depending on the severity of the cough, broken ribs and bruising may occur.  During the third stage, which lasts about 2-3 weeks, the cough will gradually subside. This is known as the recovery stage.

Pertussis is highly contagious and is passed on through tiny drops of bodily fluid, which travel from one person to another. This fluid can become airborne through sneezing, coughing or laughing. Antibiotics shorten the period of contagiousness to 5 days. The antibiotic most commonly prescribed for Whooping Cough is called erythromycin and fights the bacteria in the nose and throat, lowering the risk of passing on the infection.

How do you prevent pertussis in your children? The best way to prevent your children from contracting pertussis is to make sure they receive the DTP/DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) vaccination prior to their sixth birthday. This vaccine is usually administered in three separate doses of 0.5ml into the outer-mid thigh of younger infants or the upper arm of older children. Side effects of the vaccine include fever, irritability, soreness and swelling at the site of injection.

Testimony as to the devastating side effects of whooping cough can be seen through the account given by Stacy Warren, a young woman from Ottawa, Canada. Stacy had been participating in competitive sport for over fifteen years without any signs of respiratory problems. At the time Stacy was a varsity athlete at the University of Ottawa, and was hoping to finish off with what was to be the pride of her accomplished soccer career. Prior to leaving for the World University Games 2005 hosted in Izmir, Turkey, Stacy began to feel fatigued, a result of a loss of appetite she’d been experiencing for over a week and a half. Joining the rest of her teammates from all around Canada in representing her country Stacy was prepared to begin training immediately upon arrival in Germany, before leaving for Turkey however was shocked when she began coughing hysterically without pause. After realizing she was beginning to cough up a yellow flem-like substance, she decided to get the team doctor to check her out and was given a full physical by the medic on staff. She was surprised to discover that she, in fact, had whooping cough and had been infected prior to boarding her plane in Ottawa. Stacy was immediately put on medication but was unable to participate in the training that followed. Confined to the bench, she watched as the rest of her team took on the best soccer players from around the world. Stacy continued to take the prescribed medication and recovered in the weeks following her return to Ottawa. She never however, recovered from losing what could have been a life altering experience.

A more encouraging account of whooping cough can be seen through the experience of Kevin, a young American boy in grade 5. At this point five of the children in his class were found to have been diagnosed with whooping cough throughout his academic year. Thankfully Kevin had received his DTP/DTaP vaccine prior to his sixth birthday and escaped the school year without having contracted the bacteria. Kevin is now entering grade 8 and has yet to have suffered from the effects of Pertussis.  

While severe cases of Whooping Cough were diagnosed in large numbers throughout the fifties, numbers dropped to 1000 cases alone in 1976 according to the American Academy of Paediatrics. Whooping Cough has reappeared on the medical scene however, and in 2004, 25 000 cases were reported in the United States alone. This statistics came only one year after an incredible outbreak of Whooping Cough took over the Ragh district of Badakhshan, Afghanistan. In this isolated area 115 cases were diagnosed and 12 children were found to have died of the disease. Seventeen more people died after the infection had spread to the neighbouring districts of Darwaz and Wakhan before the outbreak was successful contained.

Since the mid-seventies, no major outbreaks have been documented. Whooping cough does however continue to plague people around the world, targeting young children and crippling their respiratory system.