The Grapevine

Whooping Cough Symptoms: 4 Cases Confirmed In Buncombe County Schools

Whooping cough is an illness caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. Before vaccines for the cough were made available in the 1940s, it was classified as a childhood disease.

At the time, about 200,000 children were infected each year in the United States with nearly 9,000 dying as a result of the infection. Today, rates have significantly declined among children. But there is still a risk among infants who are too young to be fully vaccinated.

How is whooping cough different from a regular cough?

Pertussis, typically known as whooping cough, is a contagious respiratory tract infection. It gets its name from the sound made by the infected person while coughing, which is described as a high-pitched intake of breath that sounds like "whoop." 

Early symptoms are similar to that of a regular cough or cold, including a runny nose, a low-grade fever, and the occasional cough. After one or two weeks, symptoms of pertussis may become clearer. The affected person may experience paroxysms (fits) of many, rapid coughs including the "whoop" sound. They may also experience vomiting and exhaustion after the coughing fits.

But many people may not develop the "whoop" and only be left with a severe and persistent cough in the cases of adolescents or adults. Babies may not develop a cough at all, but face breathing problems (apnea) instead.

Who is most at risk of acquiring pertussis?

DTaP vaccine is provided to children to help shield them from harmful bacteria which can cause diphtheria, tetanus, as well as whooping cough. By the time a person reaches adolescence or adulthood, the effects of the vaccine wear off and leave them susceptible to an infection.

According to the Mayo Clinic, infants who are aged younger than 12 months and are unvaccinated or have not received the full set of recommended vaccines are at highest risk. They may face severe complications such as pneumonia, weight loss, dehydration, seizures, brain damage, or death.

Where have recent cases been confirmed?

Four cases of whooping cough were confirmed in Buncombe County in North Carolina, as reported by the Buncombe County Health and Human Services (BCHHS) on May 21. According to health officials, three other cases were also identified in connection with the four lab-confirmed cases.  

A 2018 report from Canada also suggested pertussis was significantly under-reported. By comparing three different datasets in Ontario, researchers found the estimated total number of cases among infants was nearly double, from 545 recorded cases to an estimated 924 cases.

"Whooping cough is a vaccine-preventable disease, and these research findings reinforce the need for people to make sure their immunizations are up-to-date to limit potential infection and spread. This is particularly important for people who care for or are in contact with young infants," said lead author Dr. Natasha Crowcroft, chief of applied immunization research and evaluation at Public Health Ontario.