Outbreak of whooping cough in South Australia

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South Australia's Department of Health is urging parents to make sure their children are immunised against whooping cough as an outbreak is beginning in SA.

Vaccination against whooping cough is part of the standard childhood immunisations.

The Director of Communicable Diseases Branch, Dr Rod Givney, says while there are always some cases on whooping cough in the community, wider outbreaks or epidemics occur every 3-4 years.

SA is currently experiencing the highest levels of whooping cough since 2001, when there were almost 2000 cases. Increased cases are occurring throughout the state, and nationally.

“There have been more cases notified so far this year than for the whole of last year, with 75 cases notified last month, signalling a significant upwards trend,” Dr Givney says.

Vaccination is the most effective means of preventing whooping cough. The Australian Standard Vaccination Schedule provides free whooping cough vaccination for infants at 2, 4, and 6 months, and as a pre-school booster at 4 years.

Parents can request their child's immunisation history either by phoning the Australian Childhood Immunisation Register ACIR on 1800 653 809 or by requesting an Immunisation History Statement on-line at .

They will need to quote their child's Medicare number.

Antibiotics commenced very early in the infection can shorten the duration of symptoms, and more importantly, will reduce the time that a person is able to spread the infection to others, which may be for up to 3 weeks without treatment. Antibiotics given after contact with an infected person may prevent a child developing infection.

A newly available vaccine for adolescents is also available this year. It is being provided free in the school-based program in South Australia for year 9 students. The new vaccine is also recommended as a booster for parents of newborn babies, parents planning pregnancy, child-care workers, health care workers who care for young children and anyone who wants protection against whooping cough.

Whooping cough is a highly contagious bacterial disease spread by respiratory droplets produced through coughing or sneezing. Up to 100% of susceptible household contacts and 80% of susceptible school contacts will get the disease if exposed.

The illness usually begins with cold-like symptoms, followed by a persistent cough. Severe coughing bouts may cause breathlessness or vomiting. Sometimes a high-pitched crowing noise (the whoop) is heard when inhaling. Very young babies may not develop a cough - they may simply stop breathing.

Anyone who has a dry cough lasting more than 3 days should visit a doctor as soon as possible for advice. Those diagnosed with the disease should avoid contact with infants and others particularly vulnerable to infection.

Whooping cough is an extremely distressing illness for people of any age, but is highly dangerous for infants, who can contract pneumonia or suffer brain damage as a result of infection. It kills about 250,000 children worldwide each year.

Maternal antibody (antibody from a mother which crosses the placenta and protects a newborn baby) does not give adequate protection against whooping cough, so babies can be infected before they are old enough to be vaccinated at 2 months.

In SA, more than three quarters of all cases occur in adults, with adolescents and adults suspected to be the main source of infection for vulnerable infants.

Disease control relies on vaccination, prompt diagnosis of cases, treatment with appropriate antibiotics, and the exclusion of cases from places where transmissions could occur, such as child-care centres and schools.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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