Whooping Cough Spreading Across U.S.

By Amir Khan on July 19, 2012 11:10 PM EDT

Whooping Cough
The United States is experiencing an epidemic of whooping cough, also known as pertussis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost 18,000 cases of the disease have been reported in 2012 -- the highest rate in over 5 years. (Photo: Creative Commons)

The United States is experiencing an epidemic of whooping cough, also known as pertussis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost 18,000 cases of the disease have been reported in 2012 -- the highest rate in over 5 years.

"That's more than twice as many as we had at the same time last year," Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, told CNN. "We may need to go back to 1959 to find a year with as many cases reported by this time so far."

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Whooping cough is a highly contagious bacterial disease that initially causes runny nose, fever and a mild cough and progresses into fits of rapid coughs followed by the telltale high-pitched "whoop" sound and vomiting, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The infection lasts up to 12 weeks, giving it the nickname the "100 day cough," but antibiotics reduce the severity of the symptoms. A series of vaccines administered between 2 months and 6 years of age can prevent the disease.

However, people don't realize that vaccination doesn't last forever. Adults need a booster shot every 10 years, and when they fail to stay vaccinated, it creates an opening for a whooping cough outbreak, according to the CDC.

"We strongly urge pregnant women and all who will be around babies to be vaccinated," Schuchat said. "Infants often get pertussis from a family member or household member."

Researchers aren't sure why the disease is making a comeback, but said falling vaccination rates may play a role.

"Unvaccinated kids are at eight times higher risk to getting pertussis compared to kids who have been vaccinated," Schuchat told ABC News. "Vaccinated kids who do develop pertussis have a milder course. They're also less infectious than unvaccinated children."

Pertussis affects over 48 million people worldwide every year and results in almost 300,000 deaths, according to a 2010 study.

The epidemic is particularly worrisome for babies, who can get whooping cough from adults and other family members, according to the department of health. Whooping cough can cause pneumonia, convulsions or encephalopathy, a disease of the brain, in babies, according to the CDC. One in 100 babies who get whooping cough will die.

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