FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. - Whooping cough is a highly contagious disease caused by the Bordella Pertussis bacteria, which can cause severe coughing fits that can last for weeks.
Nearly 18,000 cases of whooping cough - or pertussis - have been reported so far this year - more than twice the number seen at this point in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And at this pace, the number for the entire year could be the highest since 1959, when 40,000 illnesses were reported in the United States.
In infants, the cough can be a high-pitched whoop, hence the name whooping cough, said Dr. Stephen Jones, an infectious disease specialist and chief safety officer at Greenwich Hospital .
Jones said that pertussis is more prevalent in developing countries than in the U.S., with more than 45 million cases and 295,000 deaths reported worldwide each year. But he said there has been a domestic resurgence of whooping cough in the last few years.
The reemergence of pertussis, said Jones, is likely due to a segment of the population that has never been vaccinated, combined with those for whom the vaccine has worn off.
People with pertussis can spread the disease through coughing or sneezing while in close contact with people who then inhale the bacteria. Infants often contract pertussis through infection by parents, siblings or caregivers who are unaware they have the disease.
Whooping cough usually starts with cold-like symptoms that can include a runny nose, congestion, fever and a mild cough.
Susceptibility to infection, said Jones, is affected by age and vaccination status.
The population most at risk are newborns, as well as anyone who has not been vaccinated in recent years, he said, adding that most healthy adults and children if infected will have a full recovery.
The vaccine, he said, is effective, but it does not confer long-term immunity.
According to a 2011 study by the CDC, the protection afforded by the vaccine might only last three to six years.
It is important for adults to receive the vaccine again if a significant amount of time has passed since their last vaccine, or if they have never received it at all, Jones said.
Children, under the supervision of their pediatricians, should receive a series of vaccines to build immunity, said Jones. Adults, he said, should discuss with their physician the need for the Tetanus-Diphtheria-Pertussis (Tdap) vaccine.
Jones added that adults generally do not develop serious symptoms, but they should be vaccinated in order to prevent transmitting the disease to young infants and children who could be at serious risk.
Jones strongly urges people to get vaccinated: The vaccine is considered very safe and has saved countless lives.
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