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Pertussis or whooping cough

Pertussis is caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis. Humans are the only known reservoir of these bacteria. 


Pertussis is spread by contact with droplets coughed out by someone with the disease or by contact with recently contaminated hard surfaces upon which the droplets landed. The bacteria thrive in the respiratory passages where they produce toxins that damage the cilia (Cilia are needed to remove particulate matter and cellular debris from the respiratory tract). This results in a typical cough, which is the hallmark of the infection.

Pertussis is contagious from 7 days after exposure to the bacteria and up to 3 weeks after the onset of coughing spasms. The most contagious time is during the first stage of the illness.

Initially thought to be a disease of childhood, recent studies have shown that adults are susceptible to Pertussis and account for up to 25% of cases. The disease, however, tends to be milder in adults and adolescents – a persistent cough much like an upper respiratory infection or cold. Because of this fine distinction, the diagnosis of Pertussis is frequently missed in that population and thus allows the bacteria to spread to more susceptible infants and children.


Both frequent hand washing and the use of masks will help lessen the likelihood the bacteria spreading. Avoid touching nose or mouth and introducing bacteria. Children should follow the recommended schedule for the DTPa (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) inoculations.

DTPa vaccines are recommended in Australia for booster vaccination of individuals above 8 years of age who have previously had a primary course of diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine. DTPa vaccines have a lower content of diphtheria and pertussis antigens than DTPa formulations for young children. All healthcare workers and adults working with young children are advised to receive a booster if they have had a primary childhood vaccination.
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