Childhood Scourge Returns Whooping Cough Rises as Immunization Drops

By Roger Signor Post-Dispatch Science-Medicine Editor | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 4, 1993 | Go to article overview

Childhood Scourge Returns Whooping Cough Rises as Immunization Drops


Roger Signor Post-Dispatch Science-Medicine Editor, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Two-month-old Victoria Jones coughed so long and hard that she made a frightening "whooooup!" sound as she gasped for breath.

Her parents rushed her to Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital on Monday night when Victoria's limbs turned blue after a severe coughing spasm.

Doctors diagnosed whooping cough - or pertussis - a bacterial infection that can be fatal to babies.

Like many young parents, Victoria's mother, Angela, had never heard of whooping cough, which once killed thousands of children a year. After years of obscurity, the disease is making a comeback in Missouri and nationwide.

In St. Louis and St. Louis County this year, whooping cough has hit 25 children, 17 of whom were hospitalized, health officials say.

None died, but as the number of cases increases, that possibility also increases, says Thomas W. Hicks, chief of the Missouri health department's immunization bureau.

This year, 80 cases of the illness have been reported statewide, Hicks said. At that rate, this year's final count will at least equal last year's 120 cases - five times the annual count before 1989, Hicks said.

In St. Clair County, six cases of whooping cough have been reported this year. The total for last year was 10, county health officials say.

In the early 1900s, whooping cough was one of the most common childhood diseases. It peaked in 1934 with 265,300 cases, causing 7,518 deaths. The highest number of deaths, 9,269, occurred in 1923. A vaccine developed in the late 1940s reduced cases by 99 percent within 25 years.

No one is sure why whooping cough has returned, Hicks said. "It's a mild illness in teen-agers and adults, but it's severe in infants and young children," he said. But childhood vaccinations for the disease tend to wear off after 10 to 15 years, doctors say. Adults get what they think is a mild cold, but it's whooping cough - and they can infect babies who have little or no immunity.

Pertussis vaccination involves four shots. …

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