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Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

Whooping cough is also known as pertussis, which means ‘violent cough’. The disease killed ten thousand children a year in the UK during the early 20th century. Though its seriousness has declined steadily over the last hundred years, it remains surprisingly common.

Whooping cough is an infectious disease that has three characteristic phases. The initial ‘catarrhal’ stage consists of a cough, runny nose and temperature – similar to a bad cold. This is typically followed after a week by uncontrollable spasms of coughing which, when severe, are separated only by the ‘whoop’ as the child forcefully breathes in between coughing bouts. This is described as the ‘paroxysmal’ stage. The final ‘resolution’ stage heralds an improvement in the child’s condition and the road to recovery, though this can take some time, which is why the disease is known in Japan and China as the ‘hundred-day cough’. Nowadays, most cases are relatively mild with less than half developing the characteristic ‘whoop’. Most children with whooping cough now only have what appears to be a bad cold followed by a cough, making the diagnosis easy to miss. Serious complications can occur but are
much less common than they used to be. The most common complication, affecting around 1 in 100 children is pneumonia that is normally readily treatable with antibiotics. Nevertheless, whooping cough can still be a distressing and unpleasant illness with prolonged episodes of coughing with vomiting that may last for several weeks. It is difficult to be sure of the death rate from whooping cough now, but the risk of dying is probably around 1 in 30,000 cases.

Whooping cough is
remarkably common, despite high vaccine uptake. One general practice study found that over a third of all children with a cough lasting over two weeks were suffering from whooping cough, despite nearly all being fully immunised.

Picture courtesy CDC