Whooping Cough Vaccine Recommended for All Adults

In adults, pertussis can be an annoying and nagging cough that lasts for weeks or months before it disappears. For an infant, pertussis, or whooping cough, can be fatal.

That’s why the federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) last week recommended that all adults should get vaccinated against whooping cough. This latest recommendation adds adults 65 years and older to the list of people who should receive one dose of the pertussis vaccine.

This is great news, local health officials say, because the majority of infants who get pertussis—about 80 percent one study revealed—are infected by parents, grandparents, older siblings, or other caregivers who might not even know they have the disease.

“The new recommendation will help protect infants who are the most vulnerable to the potentially deadly disease,” said Wilma Wooten, M.D., M.P.H., County Public Health Officer. “Infants are especially at risk of contracting the disease because the first dose of the pertussis vaccine isn’t given until eight weeks after birth. They are also more susceptible to complications and, unfortunately, more likely to die.”

During the 2010 pertussis epidemic in California, 10 infants died from complications of the disease; two of those deaths were in San Diego and more than 9,000 pertussis cases were reported across the state, including 1,144 locally, the highest ever reported in the region.

The epidemic prompted state officials to adopt a new law requiring all 7th through 12th graders to receive the pertussis booster or Tdap shot. The law went into effect in July 2011.

Children have been vaccinated against whooping cough since the 1940s. The series of vaccine or DTaP is given starting at two months of age. However, the vaccine for adolescents and adults was not licensed until 2005.

The new recommendation from the ACIP, which the federal government usually adopts, was prompted by the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently licensed a vaccine for adults 65 and older.

“Studies have shown that grandparents are at times responsible for transmitting pertussis to babies,” said Dr. Mark Sawyer, Medical Director for the San Diego Immunization Partnership, a UCSD contract with the County Health and Human Services Agency.

“The new recommendation will also protect seniors themselves because they do get pertussis and occasionally they get sick enough to be hospitalized,” added Sawyer, who is one of 15 ACIP voting members. A complete interview with Dr. Sawyer on his role in the ACIP, the importance of vaccines and vaccine safety is here.

Parents can obtain the vaccine series and the Tdap booster shot for themselves and their children through their primary care physician. Students and seniors who are not covered by a medical insurance plan can get the shot from a local retail pharmacy for a fee, or from a County Public Health Center at no cost.

A typical case of pertussis starts with a cough and runny nose for one to two weeks, followed by weeks to months of rapid coughing fits that sometimes end with a whooping sound. Fever, if present, is usually mild. The disease is treatable with antibiotics.

For more information about whooping cough and ongoing vaccination clinics, call the HHSA Immunization Branch at (866) 358-2966, or visit