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Old-time whooping cough vaccine found to be increasingly less effective

While the pertussis vaccine is not optimal, it's still the best available combatant for preventing whooping cough. Doctors say the they are frantically doing research to make a better one. |

Today’s whopping cough is being battled by yesterday’s vaccine.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers say that the vaccine used for whooping cough is less effective because the bacteria behind the disease has mutated. The researchers analyzed lab samples from whooping cough patients between 2000 and 2013 and found that Bordetella pertussis, which causes whooping cough, has undergone genetic changes over time.

Scientists who published their data this week in the journal “Emerging Infectious Diseases” want to change that.

For now, children are less protected by the modern vaccine.

Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center told NBC News that “the pertussis vaccine is not optimal.”

“We’re making the best use of the vaccine, while we’re frantically doing research to make a better one,” Schaffner said, adding a new vaccine is far from ready.

School outbreaks in several states

Some states have reported whooping cough outbreaks impacting schools in the last two months. Among them:

— 70 cases of whooping cough have been confirmed in San Diego County and parents in area high schools were notified earlier this week that students could have been exposed.

— More than 35 cases have been confirmed in South Dakota, many in the school districts since February.

— 30 students in L.A.’s Harvard-Westlake school fell ill with whooping cough in February, after county health officials sent an email to doctors warning of clusters of pertussis that had sickened 50 people in a wave in different parts of the county.

Whooping cough: What you need to know

Whooping cough is a pretender. The respiratory infection looks like a typical cold with a running nose and low-grade fever. The racking cough with the “whoop” sound of someone infected gasping for air will not show up until up two weeks later, according to the CDC. But the cough likes to stick around and can last for weeks. That’s how it earned the nickname — the “cough of 100 days.”

How it spreads

This disease is highly contagious, spread when someone coughs, sneezes or talks and infected droplets are sprayed in the air, where other people inhale them and become infected.


Doctors treat whooping cough with antibiotics and the CDC stresses early treatment is important so it is less serious.

The best protection against whooping cough remains the DTaP vaccine, which also protects against diphtheria and tetanus for a decade.

Babies at greatest risk

Of the more than 13,400 cases reported in 2018, there were 10 deaths from pertussis, according to the CDC.

Of those, four of them were babies under the age of 1.

Babies face the greatest risk for complications, and about half the babies younger than age 1 are hospitalized, often because they have trouble breathing, the CDC reports. A quarter develop pneumonia. One out of 100 will die.

Sonja Haller, USA TODAY