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Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious disease caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. This disease results in high morbidity and mortality in many countries every year. In the United States, there were more than 13,000 cases including 18 deaths from pertussis in 2008.
Pertussis can cause serious illness in children and adults. The disease starts like the common cold, with runny nose or congestion, sneezing, and maybe mild cough or fever. But after 1–2 weeks, severe coughing begins. Children with the disease cough violently and rapidly, over and over, until the air is gone from their lungs and they're forced to inhale with a loud "whooping" sound. Pertussis is worse for very young children; more than half of infants less than 1 year of age who get the disease must be hospitalized. About 1 in 10 children with pertussis get pneumonia (lung infection), and about 1 in 50 will have convulsions.
In addition, about 1 in 250 people who become infected with pertussis develop a brain disorder called encephalopathy. And in even rarer cases, pertussis can be deadly.
People with pertussis usually spread the disease by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others, who then breathe in the pertussis bacteria. Many infants who get pertussis are infected by older siblings or parents who might not even know they have the disease.
The best way to prevent pertussis is to get vaccinated. In the US, the recommended pertussis vaccine for children is called DTaP. This is a safe and effective combination vaccine that protects children against three diseases: diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis.