Adults, seniors at risk for whooping cough

Booster vaccine for pertussis needed every 10 years
March 20, 2013

Golfer Fritz Schranck knew something was wrong. He felt exhausted, so tired he had trouble climbing stairs. Feeling worn down, Schranck decided to see his doctor.

His diagnosis took him by surprise. The doctor diagnosed him with pertussis, also known as whooping cough, a disease that kills about 8,000 people each yea

Whooping cough

Whooping cough is characterized by fits of coughing and high-pitched wheezing as the person struggles for breath.

Unlike the common cold, pertussis coughing fits can continue for weeks.

Other symptoms include:

• runny nose

• low-grade fever

• mild, occasional cough

• apnea – a pause in breathing (in infants)

• vomiting • exhaustion

For decades, most infants have been immunized against this contagious disease, characterized by deep coughing or whooping, and vomiting. Now doctors say older children and adults are getting the illness because they are not keeping up to date on their vaccinations, so their immunity has declined.

Dr. Martin Luta, chief of the Bureau of Communicable Disease with Delaware's Division of Public Health, said pertussis is on the rise nationwide. In 2000, about 7,800 cases were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2011, that number more than doubled to 18,000 cases, in patients ranging from children to senior citizens.

The CDC reports, “Since mid-2011, a substantial rise in pertussis cases has been reported in the state of Washington. In response to this increase, the Washington state secretary of health declared a pertussis epidemic on April 3, 2012.”

In 2004, Delaware had 27 cases of pertussis, while in 2007, 18 cases were reported. The numbers continued to decline in 2009 with 13, and 2010 with 12. Then, in 2011, 29 cases were reported in the state, said Emily Knearl of DPH.

“Pertussis has been traditionally a children's disease, but as time went on, children became well protected, while adults became more at risk,” Luta said. “Symptoms in older populations are not specific, and adults may not feel sick while they continue to spread the disease.”

Officials are concerned older children may get the illness or give it to adults who have not had the booster vaccine, which is recommended every 10 years.

According to the CDC, pertussis usually starts with cold-like symptoms and a mild cough or fever. After about two weeks, severe coughing begins.

Whooping cough is characterized by fits of coughing and high-pitched wheezing as the person struggles for breath. Unlike the common cold, pertussis coughing fits can continue for weeks.

Luta said the number of pertussis cases will likely continue to rise nationwide until adults realize the importance of keeping up with vaccines.

“Immunity does not last forever," Luta said. A few years ago, the adult pertussis or Tdap vaccine was introduced and used as a booster for adults and adolescents. The childhood vaccine is called DTaP, which is a combination vaccine that protects against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis.

Adults in regular contact with young children are urged to get the vaccine, as well as daycare providers, caretakers and pregnant women. Luta said the vaccine given to infants generally wanes around 11 years, which means teens should also get the Tdap booster vaccine.

Schranck's doctor gave him the vaccine to prevent whooping cough from returning, but Schranck said having whooping cough was an experience he will never forget.

“While it is not as serious of a risk for adults as it is for children, it really took it out of me,” Schranck said. “It's a good example of how important it is to stay up to date with your vaccines.”

Talk to your healthcare provider about getting vaccinated against pertussis and read more about pertussis prevention at

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