Worldwide, about 300,000 people--mostly infants--die each year from whooping cough, known scientifically as pertussis. The disease is caused by Bordetella pertussis, a type of bacterium that infects the human respiratory tract. Vaccinations prevent infection for a few years, but that immunity declines if booster shots aren't administered later in life. In fact, pertussis infection is increasing among teenagers and adults. The rise not only causes financial and health problems, but it also puts babies at increased risk of contracting whooping cough if they live with or are cared for by infected adults. Since the symptoms can be as mild as a persistent cough, adults may not even realize that they are infected.
The Global Pertussis Initiative (GPI), an international group of pertussis researchers, has formulated several recommendations to help control the disease. The goal set for North America is to enhance immunity to whooping cough by introducing universal adolescent vaccination programs and vaccinating certain target groups, such as parents and relatives of newborns, healthcare workers and childcare workers.
The main obstacle in getting countries to adhere to the GPI's recommendations, according to Kevin Forsyth, MD, PhD, lead author of the study, is health care professionals' perception of the importance of pertussis. "Most health care professionals think that whooping cough is a problem for younger children, but not adolescents or adults," said Dr. Forsyth, of Flinders Medical Center in Adelaide, Australia. "That's incorrect."
A universal adolescent vaccine would be a good start to developing pertussis immunity in at-risk populations, said Dr. Forsyth. "Adolescents are at special risk" of contracting whooping cough, he added, because, without getting booster shots, the vaccinations they received as children have worn off. A new pertussis vaccination suitable for teenagers and adults was developed about five years ago. "Now's the time to actually start using it," Dr. Forsyth said.
Kevin Forsyth, MD, PhD
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