By Matt Barron
Before there was a vaccine, whooping cough was one of the
most common North American childhood diseases and a
major cause of childhood deaths.
The incidence of this highly contagious respiratory infection—it gets its name from the high-pitched intake of breath that sounds like “whoop”—declined with immunization that began in the 1940s.
Today whooping cough is again on the rise, with a few thousand cases occurring in Canada every year and mainly affecting young adults and older children.
Why the resurgence? Protection provided by vaccines tends to fade over time. And the bacteria that triggers the disease, Bordetella pertussis, is changing.
“Back when these vaccines were developed, it was believed that they would provide life-time immunity and that whooping cough was just a childhood disease. With today’s research, we now know differently,” says Dr. Volker Gerdts, scientific manager of a University of Saskatchewan vaccine research project.
“We need to raise the level of immunity in all of us again, and that means vaccination for both children and adults.”
Globally there are more than 40 million cases of whooping cough and up to 300,000 deaths each year, with children in developing countries most at risk. A child in a developing country is 10 times more likely to die of a vaccine-preventable disease such as whooping cough than a child from an industrialized country.
The problem is that most existing vaccines require a series of immunizations or “booster shots”—a major challenge in developing countries where it is often difficult for families to return many times to a distant medical clinic for booster shots.
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