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The whooping cough vaccine: what you need to know

Dr Hamish Black

Here's what you need to know about the whooping cough vaccine

Young man with dark hair getting vaccination in a clinical setting from a female clinician in pink scrubs
Young man with dark hair getting vaccination in a clinical setting from a female clinician in pink scrubs

Whooping cough can be spread to young babies and children, resulting in serious illness. Here's what you need to know about the whooping cough vaccine thanks to nib. 

Every year in Australia, more than 200 babies under six months old are hospitalised due to whooping cough. Knowing the risks and how to avoid spreading the infection is key to keeping our kids – and the adults at higher risk – safe.  

Dr Hamish Black, Group Medical Advisor for nib, says there is a misconception that whooping cough is rare and harmless. “The rates have been increasing in the past 20 years, with a lot in recent years,” he explains.

It’s a problem for the very young, very old and immunocompromised. Infants are frequently hospitalised and have a mortality rate of about 1% once infected  

Immunisation is the best way to reduce the risk of whooping cough. So, here’s the lowdown on the whooping cough vaccine. 

What is whooping cough (pertussis)? 

Whooping cough is a serious respiratory infection caused by a bacterium called Bordetella pertussis. The name comes from the ‘whoop’ sounds that might follow a bout of coughing (although this sound doesn’t have to be present for a whooping cough diagnosis).  

The infection typically begins like a normal cold before the characteristic cough develops. This cough may last up to three months, even after treatment with antibiotics and when the period of infectiousness (around three weeks) is over. 

As Hamish mentioned, whooping cough is very dangerous – and even fatal – for babies under six months old, who are more likely to develop complications such as pneumonia, convulsions and inflammation of the brain. 

Older children and adults who haven’t been vaccinated can also become very sick from whooping cough, and because the disease is so contagious, they may spread it to young babies through coughing, sneezing or sometimes touch

Who needs the vaccine? 

Babies and children are the main focus of vaccination programs, but there are certain groups of adults who should also get vaccinated, including pregnant women, people who work in childcare or healthcare and travellers. Your GP can give you advice on whether vaccination is recommended for you.   

If you’re nervous about vaccinating your kids, Hamish assures you that any side-effects are very mild (think: swelling and pain at the infection site, mild fever and irritability in babies).  

“A form of whooping cough vaccine has been around for over 100 years” he explains, “It is safe whereas whooping cough is a serious illness. This is the reason pregnant women are given a vaccine for free during pregnancy – to provide protection from birth for their baby.”  

Chat to your GP if you have questions or concerns about vaccination.  

When to get the whooping cough vaccine 

The whooping cough vaccine is recommended for all babies at six weeks, four months and six months, and again when children reach the ages of 18 months and four years old. There’s also an older child pertussis booster dose given at the age of 12 – 13.  It’s recommended that pregnant women get vaccinated in the third trimester (28 to 32 weeks) to help lower the chances of their baby getting whooping cough in the first few weeks after birth.  

How does the vaccine work? 

Modern whooping cough vaccines work by using tiny amounts of proteins taken from the whooping cough bacterium. The immune system identifies the proteins as an infection and begins to produce antibodies to fight the bacteria. But as Hamish explains, vaccines only work if the vast majority of people get the jab – known as ‘herd immunity’.  “One of the great medical breakthroughs in the last 100 years has been in preventing and even eliminating serious illnesses with vaccines (think: smallpox and polio),” Hamish says. “But the catch 22 in regards to vaccination is that the more successful we are in eliminating disease through vaccination the more people question the need for vaccination as they don’t see much of this illness in the community. “This vaccine hesitancy is a challenge that the World Health Organization has described as one of the greatest threats to our health this century.”   

Types of whooping cough vaccine 

Whooping cough vaccines are part of a combination vaccine that also protects against other serious diseases.  There are two vaccines that provide protection against whooping cough: 

  • The DTPa vaccine to protect children from diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough 

  • The dTpa vaccine to protect adolescents and adults (including pregnant women) from tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough. 

Do you need a booster? 

There is some risk for all adults unless they’ve had a recent vaccination booster. Most of the time, adults are the ones who spread the infection to babies under six months who are not yet fully vaccinated. That’s why it’s recommended that all parents of newborns get a booster of the whooping cough vaccine. Grandparents and other carers in contact with children less than six months old should also have an adult booster, even if they’ve been infected with whooping cough in the past. 

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.  

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Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black has been a medical practitioner for more than 25 years. In addition to his role as nib group medical advisor, he still spends two days a week practising as a GP. He has spent many years working in emergency departments and in rural Australia, including a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hamish also loves karaoke and dancing (though not that well at either, he says!), with Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry being his karaoke favourite.