Whooping Cough On The Rise

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PertussisChild with PertussisMy daughter had a hacking cough for about five weeks before a doctor even mentioned the possibility of pertussis, which is sharply on the rise, according to Tara Parker-Pope, writing for the New York Times Well blog today.

Like Parker-Pope's daughter — and most other kids — mine was also vaccinated against pertussis, the highly infectious disease also known as whooping cough. So what's causing the spike?

No one knows for sure, she writes, but:

There are several explanations for the rise in pertussis, but the most likely is waning immunity after vaccination. “Immunity wears off, especially for adults who are decades past their most recent vaccination,” said Dr. Tom Clark, an epidemiologist with the C.D.C.

Moreover, adults and adolescents often wait weeks before seeking treatment for a chronic cough — and even then, doctors may not recognize it as pertussis.

“You only begin to think about pertussis when it’s been going on for weeks and weeks,” Dr. Clark said, “and then treatment is much less likely to make a difference, and you’ve spread it to other people.”

Another factor may be the declining use of antibiotics to treat simple coughs and colds. While doctors legitimately worry that indiscriminate use of antibiotics can lead to the development of drug-resistant bacteria, it may be that in the past the drugs inadvertently cured many cases of undiagnosed pertussis.

This program aired on August 17, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.