Whooping cough. The name is downright Victorian — like “cow pox,” “the grippe” and other old-fashioned afflictions that have been wiped out by modern vaccines. But this bacterial infection is making a dangerous comeback.
Last week, a fourth suburban Philadelphia school district confirmed an outbreak of whooping cough, also known as pertussis. As of Friday, there were eight confirmed cases in the Quakertown School District, two at Hillsdale Elementary School in the West Chester Area School District, two at Great Valley High School in Malvern, and one at Saucon Valley High School in Hellertown.
Pertussis “starts with mild cold symptoms like a runny nose and mild cough,” says Kristen Feemster, MD, MPH, MSHP, of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Then come episodes of rapid-fire coughing. “The episodes can be so severe that the lungs run out of air, resulting in a forced inhalation that sounds like a ‘whoop,’ " she says.
Whooping cough’s real danger is to babies younger than six months old who have not yet been fully vaccinated. (Infants should receive a vaccine against pertussis at 2, 4 and 6 months, according to the CDC.) “It is estimated that one-fourth of infants younger than 6 months old [with pertussis] develop complications like pneumonia or seizures and 1 percent of infants younger than 2 months old with pertussis may die,” Feemster says. “The Philadelphia Department of Health released a health alert in January indicating an increase in the number of reported pertussis cases, including one that resulted in an infant death.”