Pertussis Epidemic

Sick boyEarlier this week, Dr. Ron Chapmen, director of the California Department of Public Health, declared a pertussis epidemic in California: 3,458 cases of the disease have been reported in the state so far this year. In 2010, California experienced the worst outbreak of pertussis in 60 years: 10,000 cases. Nationwide that year there were 27,550 cases of pertussis. The greatest number of US pertussis cases ever—265,269—occurred in 1932.

Pertussis is a serious disease that can be fatal in very young children. It begins with a slight fever and a runny nose. These are followed by a loose cough that can last three to 12 weeks. Coughing spells can be so severe as to interfere with eating, drinking, and breathing. The incubation period for pertussis is seven to 21 days and the infectious period is three to four weeks following appearance of the illness.


It’s surprising to hear that there’s an epidemic of a childhood disease because of our high vaccine coverage in infants and children. However, since the 1980s, the US has experienced periodic outbreaks of pertussis, with incidence increasing over time. Many of the news pieces on the epidemic blame it on the children who are not vaccinated, but the CDC says that this is not the case:

Even though children who haven’t received a DTaP vaccines are at least 8 times more likely to get pertussis than children who received all 5 recommended doses of DTaP. they are not the driving force behind the large scale outbreaks of epidemics.

Instead, the epidemic is related to four factors:

  • The cyclic nature of pertussis. According to the CDC, “Since the early 1980s, there has been an overall trend of an increase in reported pertussis cases. Pertussis is naturally cyclic in nature, with peaks in disease every 3-5 years. But for the past 20-30 years, we’ve seen the peaks getting higher and overall counts going up.”
  • DTaP vaccine immunity wanes over time. Across all ages, the effectiveness of the DTaP vaccine is 85.9%. Effectiveness is 94.7% in four to five-year-olds, but drops to 81.1% for eight to ten-year-olds.
  • DTaP vaccine does not prevent infection from or transmission of pertussis. People who are vaccinated may still get the disease and may also transmit it to others. According to a 2013 study, “Acellular pertussis vaccines protect against disease but fail to prevent infection and transmission in a nonhuman primate model, “…optimal control of pertussis will require the development of improved vaccines.”
  • Tdap booster vaccine is only moderately effective. Using two different control groups, researchers associated with the Vaccine Study Group found the vaccine to be from 53% to 64% effective.


From the 1940s to the 1990s, a whole-cell vaccine, known as DTP or DPT, was given to children in five doses. Adverse events reported to be associated with the whole-cell vaccine were so numerous that they motivated a group of parents whose children had been damaged by the vaccine to form Disatisfied Parents Together (DPT). An advocacy group for safe vaccines, DPT was instrumental in the creation of the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act and later went on to become the National Vaccine Information Center.

The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act was enacted to reduce the potential financial liability of vaccine manufacturers from vaccine injury claims and thus ensure the vaccine supply. It established the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System and the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (NVICP). NVICP created a no-fault system for compensating families for vaccine-related injuries or death through the US Court of Federal Claims. The act also established a committee from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to review existing scientific literature on vaccine adverse events after vaccination.

In 1991, the IOM issued a report entitled, Adverse Effects of Pertussis Vaccines, which looked at evidence in the scientific literature for a causal relation between the DPT  vaccine and 18 adverse events. The IOM concluded, “The evidence is consistent with a causal relation between DPT vaccine and acute encephalopathy, defined in the controlled studies reviewed as encephalopathy, encephalitis, or encephalomyelitis.” (IOM, 1991, p. 118)

Due to these safety concerns associated with the whole-cell pertussis vaccine, acellular vaccines were developed and began to be used exclusively in the 1990s. Since 2005 it’s been recommended that everyone over 11 years of age also get the booster shot, Tdap. Only recently has enough time elapsed to allow researchers to be able to track the performance and effectiveness of these newer vaccines.


If your child has symptoms of pertussis, seek medical advice immediately. Erythromycin is the antibiotic of choice for pertussis. According to Jay Gordon, MD, “After five days on erythromycin, a child may return to school, daycare, or playgroup.”

There are some other things that might also help, especially if started at the first onset of symptoms:

  • As the cough is related to thick mucus, keep mucus forming foods such as milk, flour and eggs to a minimum. Eat light foods such as fruits and vegetables, herbal teas, and soups (add some garlic). Avoid sugar. The key to treating pertussis is to keep the mucus in the lungs fluid.
  • Specific homeopathic remedies for pertussis include Coccus cacti and the nosode, Pertussin. Drosera is recommended if coughing fits are followed by gagging, retching or vomiting. If coughing fits are followed by gasping for air, difficulty breathing or end in exhaustion, Cuprum may be indicated.
  • Herbs can be helpful. Wild cherry bark lozenges are soothing to the throat. Make a tea of 1/2 part drosera (sundew), 1 part coltsfoot, 1 part elecampane, 1 part squalls, and 1 part thyme. Sweeten with licorice and a bit of honey. Drink four to six cups a day. The herbs could also be given in tincture form.
  • Keep well hydrated, especially if the cough causes vomiting. If your child is sick in the summer, make or buy unsweetened fruit juice popsicles.
  • Try up to 5000 milligrams of Vitamin C a day for seven days.
  • Keep the room and house well-ventilated and free of the smell of smoke.
  • Use a warm air humidifier. Add essential oils to the humidifier or to a diffuser. Basil, cyprus, marjoram, thyme, wintergreen, tea tree, camphor, lavender, chamomile, peppermint and eucalyptus are possible choices.
  • Essential oils mixed with a carrier oil like coconut or sunflower can be massaged into the chest or back. Pure essential oils can be dabbed on a pillow or diluted in water and sprayed in the sick room.
  • The therapeutic benefits of acupuncture on whooping cough symptoms have been recognized by the World Health Organization.
  • Chinese herbal formulations are highly successful in treating infectious diseases and one can be custom made for your child’s symptoms.
  • Rescue Remedy is helpful for the sick one as well as for the caregivers.
  • Boil fresh ginger root in water for 20 minutes. Add to a hot foot bath and soak feet for 15 to 20 minutes. Add salt and baking soda to bath water and soak in the bath. Heat a pan of water to just boiling, add a few drops of oil of thyme or a handful of the fresh herb. Move the pan to a table and have your child put his or her head over the pan and breathe in the steam. Cover your child’s head with a towel. Make sure the water is not too hot.
  • Keep the skin moist and hydrated by oiling the dry skin daily with sunflower, coconut or olive oil.
  • Rest and avoid exertion. Coughing can be more pronounced in the evening so keep the evening calm.
  • Arrange your child’s pillows so she or he is more upright while sleeping.


PEGGY-headshotPeggy O’Mara is the editor and publisher of  She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011 and founded in 1995. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four and grandmother of two.


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11 thoughts on “Pertussis Epidemic

  1. Pingback: Pertussis? Newbie with a question! - Page 2 - Mothering Forums

  2. BBunsen

    I’m a bit confused. The 2013 study cited here says that “Acellular pertussis vaccines protect against disease but fail to prevent infection and transmission in a nonhuman primate model…”

    Is it known that pertussis behaves the same way in human primates as it does in nonhuman primates?

    • Peggy O'MaraPeggy O'Mara Post author

      You raise a good point. I don’t know if there have been human studies on this, but the researchers themselves concluded that more effective vaccines were needed.

      • Jonathan Besler

        ncbi.nlm.nih (dot) gov/pmc/articles/PMC2627963/
        Emerging Infectious Disease 2000 Sep-Oct
        We tested 46 fully vaccinated children in two day-care centers in Israel who were exposed to a fatal case of pertussis infection. Only two of five children who tested positive for Bordetella pertussis met the World Health Organization’s case definition for pertussis. Vaccinated children may be asymptomatic reservoirs for infection.

        ncbi.nlm.nih (dot) gov/pubmed/20929081
        Israel Medical Association Journal 2010 May
        An outbreak of pertussis occurred in a daycare center with 87.5% vaccination coverage.
        We studied 31 daycare children aged 3-5.5 years exposed to a child with pertussis. Nasopharyngeal swabs were obtained for Bordetella pertussis culture and polymerase chain reaction initially, and at days 21 and 60 of follow-up, *(only) in cases exhibiting symptoms*. (which per the above study, is likely less than half the actual cases)
        Based o the children’s clinical manifestations and PCR findings a pertussis outbreak had occurred in the daycare center studied. Our findings support the importance of pertussis vaccination since all (4/4 of) the unvaccinated children in the daycare center contracted the infection. (rolls eyes)

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  4. Lisa Dash

    Dearest Peggy, firstly,I’m long overdue in telling you how much I LOVE you & Mothering! Thank you for giving me so much support for the last 26 years on my mothering journey,it wouldn’t have been the same experience without your wisdom,for that I am SO grateful. I would like to share my pertussis experience because it may be helpful to someone.When my family got whooping cough a number of years ago I was a little freaked out,not knowing what to expect and having heard scary stories. We all got it-my 5 children ( 3 month old,2 year old,10,11, & 14 yr olds)my grandfather (84) my husband,my Mom,& myself. So,from what I read,a lot of “high risk” age-group people in my care. It was a pretty nasty cough,and dragged on for a month or so,but it wasn’t really that different from other illnesses that ‘run through’ our family from time to time. We went to our Anthroposophic doctor for homeopathic remedies, and she gave the kids an injection of a homeopathic medicine (made from the venom of ants!) that really broke up the congestion and helped immensely. We got through it,and that’s what I really wanted to share,because I really was kinda scared,and I wish I had known at the time that someone with old people and babies could get through unscathed. My grandfather and my kids weren’t vaccinated,-me ,my Mom, and my husband were vaccinated,so I guess it didn’t make much difference,although it took longer for us(vaccinated) to get it,and longer to get rid of it. Thanks for letting me share <3 Much love to you,Peggy,Mothering,and the mothering community!

    • Peggy O'MaraPeggy O'Mara Post author

      Thank you, Lisa. And,thanks for sharing your experience as it will help people who might be in the same situation. You really had all age groups involved!. Thanks again.

  5. Grammomsblog

    Our family experienced whooping cough about ten years ago. My youngest son, who has no vaccinations, contracted the disease but nobody else in the family got it (all unvaccinated). Not knowing what the problem was, we made three trips to our local hospital emergency department – my 8 year old son had a fever, coughing, lost 15 lbs in 2 weeks, and began vomiting every half an hour – I moved into his room and slept there to look after him 24/7 while his sister moved into my room. This was the worse I’d ever seen any sickness in any of my 7 children. He was prescribed stronger antibiotics each time at the hospital. The last time we went to Emergency, I was NOT coming back home until he had been re-hydrated even if I had to go to a big city childrens’ hospital – I was very worried. We did end up at the Childrens’ Hospital where we stayed for 5 days (me too) and he required I.V. antibiotics and 28 bags of I.V. fluids as he was severely dehydrated. Diagnosis: Pertussis, bilateral pneumonia, and asthma.
    from a long time reader of Mothering (I still have ALL my issues)

  6. Pingback: 7 Kinds of Coughs and the Exact Steps to Immediately Treat Each One of Them

  7. Rose

    Best source for these ingredients please (quality) : Make a tea of 1/2 part drosera (sundew), 1 part coltsfoot, 1 part elecampane, 1 part squalls, and 1 part thyme. Sweeten with licorice and a bit of honey. Drink four to six cups a day. The herbs could also be given in tincture form.

    Is there a homeopathic specialist in the Maryland area whom you would recommend? (for guidance in areas of Coccus cacti and the nosode, Pertussin. Drosera)

  8. Pingback: 7 Kinds of Coughs and What They Might Mean - The Science Of Eating

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