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New ImagePosted by Hilary Johnson, MHS, Epidemiologist in the Immunization Program at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health

Reports of soaring numbers of pertussis cases are dominating the news this year. Pertussis – also known as whooping cough – is an infection in which germs collect in  the organs which help you breathe – known as the respiratory system – and can prevent you from being able to clear away mucus.  The classic symptom for pertussis is a pronounced ‘whooping cough’ as people have trouble breathing and try to clear the thick mucus from their throat and lungs.  Pertussis can affect people of any age, but can be particularly severe in infants and young children.

With more than 36,000 cases of pertussis reported nationally in 2012 so far, the US is well on track for record-breaking numbers.  In Massachusetts alone, confirmed cases for pertussis have more than doubled in 2012 compared to 2011, with 560 cases by mid November of this year, compared to 260 cases for all of 2011. 

People with pertussis are contagious for a particularly long period of time, starting two weeks before their cough begins, through the third week after their cough starts, or up to five days after starting medicine to treat it (whichever comes first).

Are there vaccines to protect against pertussis?

Yes, there are two different types of vaccines for different age groups.  Pertussis vaccine is given with diphtheria and tetanus vaccines in the same shot.  DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, acellular pertussis) is used for children under 7 years old.  A child typically gets the first four doses in the first 18 months of life (beginning at two months of age), and a fifth dose around age 5.  Older children, adolescents, and adults receive a Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, acellular pertussis) vaccine.  In addition, Tdap is now recommended for women during each pregnancy.

Does pertussis vaccine protect for a lifetime?

Pertussis vaccines are effective, but not perfect. Getting sick with pertussis or getting pertussis vaccines doesn't provide lifelong protection, which means you can still get pertussis and pass it onto infants. The vaccine typically offers high levels of protection within the first 2 years of getting vaccinated, but then protection decreases over time. Similarly, natural infection may also only protect you for a few years. Yet, despite some limitations, the vaccine is still our best form of prevention which is why it’s so important to keep up to date with your pertussis vaccinations.

Who should get vaccinated?

Although symptoms for pertussis may be milder in adults than in infants and young children, adults can commonly pass it onto children; thus adults and children should both be vaccinated.  Our adult and adolescent populations in Massachusetts are undervaccinated – it’s estimated that only 19 percent of adults had been vaccinated in 2011.  Vaccination of pregnant mothers and their households, in particular, is critical for the protection of every newborn. 

What can I do?

Make sure you and your family (particularly pregnant women) are up-to-date with DTaP and Tdap immunizations.  Infants can’t get vaccinated until 6 weeks to 2 months of age, so newborn infants are dependent upon the community around them to help prevent disease.  We need to create a circle of protection for our most vulnerable by getting ourselves vaccinated and ensuring that those who come into contact with young children are also vaccinated. 

To learn more about how pertussis has touched the lives of one Massachusetts family, visit Brady's Cause.

For more information on pertussis, please see the MA Department of Public Health’s Immunization Program website: or the MDPH pertussis fact sheet.  You may also call the MDPH Division of Immunization at 617/983-6800, and ask to speak to an epidemiologist.

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