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Whooping Cough Catches Oldies Out

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Whooping cough not only affects the young; people over 45 are also getting diagnosed with the highly contagious bacterial disease, a study carried out by a Waikato DHB clinical research team has found.

The number of Waikato adults suffering from the potentially severe illness increased steadily from 2000 through to 2009.

Pertussis (whooping cough) epidemiology in Waikato, New Zealand: 2000-2009, features in this month's New Zealand Medical Journal. The study aimed to discover if there were any recognisable trends in pertussis cases occurring over a 10-year period.

The team, consisting of Waikato DHB Medical Officer of Health Anita Bell, former Waikato DHB registrar Richard Wall and Population Health analyst Jason Theobold, also investigated if there were any differences in the characteristics of cases between epidemic and non-epidemic periods during the same period.

Public health authorities are notified of all whooping cough cases so the team was able to analyse cases in the Waikato region during 2000-2009.

Dr Bell said the team found the illness affected an increasing percentage of people in older age groups.

"While the highest rate of disease is still in infants under one years of age, we found the disease was increasingly affecting those over 25, most significantly in the 45 plus age group.

"We did not find any clear difference in cases of disease or the severity of illness during epidemic or non-epidemic periods.

One of the reasons why there are increasing numbers of Waikato adults with whooping cough could be due to increasing recognition that the illness affects older age groups and thus more testing is being carried out. In addition, immunity from the vaccine wanes with time and many older age groups no longer have protection.

"Under the current immunisation schedule, under two year olds receive three immunisations protecting them against whooping cough, a booster at four years of age and another at aged 11, but nothing after that.

"The vaccine is recommended by the Ministry of Health but not funded for health care professionals working with high risk individuals such as neonates.

"Whooping cough is a highly contagious bacterial infection which can cause severe coughing attacks, vomiting and even more serious complications such as pneumonia. The infection can last up to three months. It is particularly severe in babies and young children, with many needing to be hospitalised due to difficulty breathing or feeding.

"To avoid catching whooping cough or passing it on to others we recommend people follow good cough and sneezing etiquette (covering your cough, using tissues, washing and drying your hands after coughing or sneezing).

"However the most effective form of protection for any preventable disease is immunisation."

One member of the Waikato community who will definitely continue to have her booster shots is Kathy Jenkin, Waikato DHB's Programme Manager: Communications, who had a severe bout of whooping cough for almost six months in 2009/10.

"It started off with mild flu like symptoms and cough but after a few days it became more severe and I began to have bouts of coughing and I couldn't breathe," she said.

"It was extremely debilitating. It would cause me to vomit, I was exhausted and sometimes I felt like I was having a severe panic attack, couldn't breath in and would nearly pass out."

Mrs Jenkin had almost two months off work to recover and still experienced symptoms for up to six months after. She recommends all adults should consider being immunised against whooping cough.

"It was honestly the worst illness I have ever experienced," she says.

To view the article Pertussis (whooping cough) epidemiology in Waikato, New Zealand: 2000-2009, in the April edition of the New Zealand Medical Journal, please visit

To find out more about whooping cough, its symptoms, and information on treatment and prevention, please visit and

Caption: Waikato DHB programme manager: communications Kathy Jenkin talks to webmaster analyst Andre Chivell about the website.

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