Pertussis outbreaks in NSW

Recently, NSW has seen a rise in community activity of pertussis. Almost 2500 cases were reported between September and November 2018. Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a severe illness for children, and can be fatal in babies.

Here’s how to stop the spread of the disease.

Signs and symptoms

Pertussis is a highly contagious respiratory infection that causes a long coughing illness.

  • It starts like a cold with a blocked or runny nose, sneezing, a mild fever and an occasional cough.
  • The cough gets worse and severe bouts of uncontrollable coughing develop.
  • Coughing bouts can be followed by vomiting, choking or taking a big gasping breath which causes a “whooping” sound. The cough can last for many weeks and can be worse at night.
  • Some newborns may not cough at all but stop breathing completely and turn blue. Other babies have difficulties feeding or they can choke and gag.
  • Older children and adults may just have a mild cough that doesn’t go away.
  • In adults the cough commonly lasts several months - giving rise to the name ‘the 100-day cough’.

Pertussis cycles

Pertussis epidemics typically occur every three to four years, and it’s expected that cases will continue to increase into 2019. The last major outbreak was in 2015/16, when almost 7000 people became ill between October and December 2015.

Pertussis is spread via the droplets coughed out by an infected person. Identification, isolation, and appropriate treatment (usually with antibiotics) can help to prevent spread; but vaccination is the most effective way to stop the disease before it starts.

The power of vaccination

Babies under six months of age are most at risk. Pregnant women who receive vaccinations during their third trimester (preferably at 28 weeks) can protect their babies from getting pertussis. In fact, immunising a pregnant mother is 85 to 90 per cent effective in protecting her baby from being hospitalised with pertussis in the first few months of life.

Vaccines are also provided under the National Immunisation Program for children at six weeks, then four, six and 18 months and four years of age and in the first year of high school. 

Health workers in contact with pregnant women and newborn babies are required to have boosters every 10 years. Other people who work with children, such as in childcare centres, or family members of babies and pregnant women (including grandparents) can benefit their loved ones and communities by being vaccinated and having a booster.

If you suspect you may be affected by pertussis, visit your doctor as soon as possible; and avoid contact with people, especially babies and pregnant women.

Prof David Isaacs, Dr Philip Britton, A/Professor Nick Wood, infectious disease specialists, Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network