Pertussis: Not Just for Children

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is not just a childhood disease. The pathogen Bordetella pertussis is highly infectious and an infection may occur at any age. The risk of a pertussis infection can be greatly reduced by vaccination, as Marion Riffelmann of the Krefeld Institute for Infectious Diseases and her colleagues report in the current Deutsches Ärzteblatt International (Dtsch Arztebl Int 2008; 105(37): 623-8).

Pertussis is actually one of the classical diseases of childhood and mainly occurs in unvaccinated babies. The clinical course at this age may be severe; pertussis is the most frequent fatal infectious disease in newborns. Nevertheless, the number of reported attacks of whooping cough in schoolchildren, adolescents and adults has markedly increased in recent years. Roughly 0.2 percent to 0.5 percent of adolescents and adults fall ill each year with pertussis and a protracted cough. About 25 percent of adult patients develop complications, such as seizures, inflammation of the middle ear or circulatory collapse.

Although the standard treatment with macrolide antibiotics interrupts the chain of infection, it does not influence the symptoms. According to Riffelmann et al., the most effective pertussis prophylaxis is vaccination with a combination vaccine. However, regular boosters are needed, as the vaccination protection continuously decreases after five years.