Families are cautioned to take measures to protect their young children from potentially becoming infected. Picture: The City of Cape Town’s Health Department

There has been a rise in the number of reported cases of whooping cough — a highly infectious disease — in South Africa this year, and families are cautioned to take measures to protect their young children from potentially becoming infected.

“Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a vaccine-preventable disease that often presents with cold-like symptoms. It occurs in people of all ages but can be particularly serious for infants, as they have under-developed immune systems and are at high risk of developing severe complications such as pneumonia or encephalitis,” says Dr Peter Vincent of Netcare Travel Clinics and Medicross Tokai.

“As many as a half of all infants under the age of one year who contract whooping cough require hospitalisation, which illustrates the potential severity that this infection can pose to them. Unfortunately some babies with the infection do not develop the distinctive cough, so it is not always obvious that they have contracted pertussis, and in some cases the first sign of the condition is when the child stops breathing,” adds Dr Vincent.

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough, which is a notifiable disease in South Africa, is an infection of the breathing passages with the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. It is usually spread through contact with respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes. 

Parents, grandparents, siblings and other caregivers are often not aware that they have contracted the infection and may pass it on to the infants in their care without being aware that they have done so.

According to Dr Vincent, in its latest edition of its Communicable Diseases Communiqué, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) reported an increase in the number of laboratory-confirmed pertussis cases in South Africa between January and August 2018 compared with last year.

The NICD states that there have been 90 confirmed cases of whooping cough in South Africa so far this year, 43% of which occurred in children three months and younger. IIt observes that episodic increases in the prevalence of the disease do tend to occur every three to five years, so It not cause for alarm. 

It does, however, call for increased vigilance, and we always advise caregivers to be ever mindful of this infection, and to take every precaution to protect the infants in their care from it.

This can be done by ensuring that your children are inoculated against whooping cough as per the requirements of the Expanded Programme on Immunization [EPI] in South Africa, which stipulates infants should receive a total of four pertussis vaccine doses at three, five, seven and 18 months.

In addition, pregnant women between 26 and 36 weeks gestation should get a dose of the quadrivalent vaccine with each pregnancy. The vaccine also provides protection against tetanus, diphtheria and polio. This assists in providing newborn babies with the best possible passive immunity against whooping cough.

Dr Vincent warns that young infants who have not yet been immunised, or who are only partially immunised, may remain at risk. 


Whooping cough is most common during winter months. Early symptoms may be similar to a common cold, including a runny nose, dry cough and slight fever. Symptoms may worsen and include long bouts of coughing that can in turn cause an individual to vomit. Symptoms generally worsen at night and the coughing can last up to ten weeks. Early treatment with antibiotics can assist in reducing the infectious period and reduce the severity of the infection.   

“Parents should seek urgent medical attention for their child should they show symptoms, including severe bouts of coughing, difficulty in breathing and/or turning blue during a bout of coughing, or if the child persistently vomits after coughing,” advises Dr Vincent.