Whooping cough epidemic looms, warn experts

Immunisation Foundation of Australia

Infectious diseases experts are warning that Australia is “well overdue” for a whooping cough (pertussis) outbreak, with data suggesting a resurgence of the disease as early as this summer.

With epidemics of the highly contagious respiratory infection occurring every three to five years and the most recent Australian epidemic peaking in late 2015 (22,570 confirmed cases1), experts predict a major outbreak that threatens infants, children and adults alike.

The Immunisation Foundation of Australia (IFA) today launched the inaugural Whooping Cough Day to encourage all Australians to remain up to date with vaccination.

Professor of Paediatrics and Child Health at University of Sydney, Professor Robert Booy said, “It’s only a matter of time before we see a resurgence of whooping cough, quite possibly in the Spring and Summer months when infections traditionally spike.”

“While respiratory infections such as influenza and RSV have recently risen to pre-pandemic levels, we haven’t yet seen this with whooping cough,” Professor Booy said.

“Whooping cough follows a fairly predictable pattern and it’s very much the sleeping bear of respiratory infectious disease right now.”

“We’ve seen years when whooping cough infections in Australia have neared 40,0001, so we must be alert to signs of a pending epidemic,” said Professor Booy.

IFA founder Catherine Hughes said the awareness campaign tackles an issue close to her heart. In 2015, Ms Hughes’ four-week-old son Riley died from whooping cough complications.

She says that despite subsequent improvements in the prevention of whooping cough in infants and pregnant women, “there is huge room for improvement when it comes to reducing the spread of whooping cough in the broader community”.

“Most people associate whooping cough with babies, but more than half of all cases are reported in adults,” Ms Hughes said.

“Whooping cough can be fatal in infants and can cause serious illness in older children and adults. This is particularly true for those with asthma who are at four times greater risk of infection and higher risk of being admitted to hospital.”

Known as the “100-day cough”, whooping cough is a highly contagious bacterial infection that attacks the airways, causing uncontrollable coughing and difficulty breathing. The coughing fits can be so severe that they cause vomiting, incontinence, broken ribs and hospitalisation.

Whooping cough is more contagious than influenza, measles or COVID-192 and, once infected, a person can remain contagious for three weeks or until they complete a course of antibiotics.3

As symptoms of whooping cough don’t appear immediately (often for a week or two following infection), the bacteria is easily spread. One infected person may unwittingly spread the disease to up to 17 unvaccinated people.2,4

With the disease most likely to spread during the warmer months, Professor Booy said “Australians should not only be alert to signs of infection, but also check their vaccination status”.

“People with an ongoing cough should practice social distancing and seek immediate medical advice,” Professor Booy said. “Increased levels of socialising and travel during the festive season facilitate the spread of airborne bacteria like whooping cough, so vigilance is required.”

Ms Hughes says that while vaccination is the best defence against whooping cough, “it’s not a case of ‘set and forget’ as protection wanes over time”.

“Adults require a booster shot at least every 10 years to stay up to date with whooping cough protection,” she said.

“Research shows that more than 80 per cent of Australian adults cannot recall receiving a whooping cough booster.5 This confirms that many are oblivious to the need for a booster vaccine and will likely have minimal protection against whooping cough.”

“It’s easy to check your immunisation status against whooping cough and organise a booster, and it’s up to all of us to protect ourselves and our loved ones against whooping cough.”

Australians can check their vaccination status by talking to a doctor, pharmacist or by accessing their Immunisation History Statement via the Express Plus Medicare app.

/Public Release.