By Alice Chisnall-Kalouniviti, Health Promoter & Nurse Educator (Pūkenga Mātauranga Whakapakari)
There’s usually a bit of coughing and spluttering at this time of year, but you might have noticed more people than usual getting sick. Over 300 whānau in the Nelson Marlborough region have come down with whooping cough in the last few months. A huge number - many of whom are Māori and Pasifika.
What is whooping cough (Pertussis)?
Whooping cough is a bacterial respiratory (breathing) illness that’s spread through saliva (spit) and mucous (snot) – for example when people cough and sneeze and don’t cover their mouths. At first there’s usually a sore throat. Within a day or so a mild, dry, ordinary cough develops. At this stage you may feel a bit māuiui (unwell), have a high temperature (fever), and a runny nose. The cough may produce some sputum (phlegm) - and over time a severe cough can develop and last for weeks or even months. The cough has a distinctive whooping sound in pepe (babies). It has a 6 day incubation period – this means whānau may not have symptoms until 6 days after exposure.
What is the chance that our tamariki will get whooping cough?
Sharing bottles and food can help spread it, so tamariki should make sure to use their own plates and cups if anyone in the whare is sick. Whooping Cough can survive outside of the human body for up to 6 days, so get all whānau to keep their hands clean, and throw away used tissues.
While the risk of getting whooping cough is usually low, every year there are very small outbreaks here in Te Tau Ihu and across Aotearoa, with a big outbreak every 3 to 5 years. According to Public Health, this current outbreak of whooping cough is the worst the country has seen in a while.
How serious is whooping cough?
For the average healthy Kiwi, whooping cough usually results in a severe cough that lasts an average of 6 weeks with little or no complications, but may result in many sleepless nights for the entire whānau. The biggest concern is for pepe (babies); more than half of pepe under 1 year of age who contract whooping cough require a hospital stay, usually because they need respiratory (breathing) support. Pepe under 3 months who are not breastfed and/or with older siblings in school are the greatest concern; the risk of exposure increases, their immune system and lungs are not strong, they do not have any antibodies from breast milk, and the first dose of the DTaP vaccine would provide very little coverage.
Testing for whooping cough
Testing is typically only done in patients who are experiencing signs and symptoms of whooping cough. Testing is done through a deep nasal swab during the first 3 weeks of illness. Not everyone with whooping cough will get tested, so whānau we know who’ve had it, may only be the tip of the iceberg.
Treatment of whooping cough
Usually staying at home with a hot drink and some sugar-free lollies or lozenges is the best treatment. Antibiotics may help if given in the first few weeks of illness. Sometimes the GP will give antibiotics to stop it from spreading to other whānau. Sadly, for some pepe who end up with Whooping Cough, it will mean a visit to the children’s ward at the hospital, because it’s always very serious when tamariki catch it.
How to stop whānau from getting whooping cough
Your best protection from whooping cough is a vaccination with Boostrix, which you can get from your Practice Nurse. Tamariki get regular immunisations during childhood, but it’s important these are up-to-date to provide protection. Adults should have a “booster” Boostrix shot every 5 years.
If you’ve chosen not to vaccinate your children, our TPO Tamariki Ora nurses can visit you at home and have a korero about immunisation and your options. We’d love to tautoko you to reconsider immunisation, and to reassure you that vaccines are safe and effective.
Whānau with a cough which does not go away, should avoid contact with babies and young children, and get advice from their Tamariki Ora nurse 0800 672 642 or from Healthline 0800 611 116.