Recently, an elected official was diagnosed with pertussis, a disease more commonly known as whooping cough. This gives us the opportunity to remind all Floridians on what pertussis and how they can protect themselves. Pertussis affects hundreds of Florida’s adults and children every year, even though the disease is preventable with routine vaccination. Babies are especially vulnerable. In 2014, there were 719 reported cases of pertussis in Florida, 77 percent of which were children. In the previous year, children accounted for 80 percent of the 738 cases.

Florida map/National Atlas of the United States
Florida map/National Atlas of the United States

Pertussis has a wide range of symptoms and some infections are more severe than others. Classic symptoms include persistent cough, fever, runny nose and a characteristic “whoop” when you breathe air in after coughing. More serious problems are vomiting after coughing, stopping breathing, seizures, pneumonia and death. Pertussis is highly contagious, especially for those in close contact with people who have the disease. Pertussis infections also linger. After the initial cold-like symptoms and cough begin, people with pertussis can infect others for three weeks and may have a cough that lasts much longer.

For infants, who have the highest reported disease rates in Florida, pertussis can have devastating consequences. About half the time, babies with pertussis require hospitalization for complications such as pneumonia. Sadly, despite advancements in medical care, between one and two percent of babies with pertussis do not survive the illness.

At the Florida Department of Health, we work every day to protect residents from diseases like pertussis. Since our agency was established in 1889 to combat yellow fever, limiting the spread of disease to keep Florida families safe has been a top priority.

The department works closely with local health professionals to offer the best possible protection against infectious diseases for our communities. Florida maintains a list of reportable diseases, such as pertussis. If a patient goes to the doctor and is diagnosed, or sometimes even just suspected, to have a reportable disease the medical provider quickly informs  Florida Department of Health staff in that county so a public health investigation can begin.

Through conversations with health care professionals, laboratories and the patient, public health epidemiologists identify all others who may be at risk of catching the disease. Our epidemiologists then determine if additional people need testing at the public health laboratory and recommend control measures to protect the public’s health. Control measures for pertussis include asking ill persons to stay at home and giving antibiotics to people likely to catch the infection.

We encourage communities in Florida to take action to keep children, adults and families safe from infectious diseases. Stay home when you’re sick and keep sick children home from school. Seek medical care for cough illnesses that do not resolve quickly, include fever, or have the classic signs of pertussis. If you’re a health care professional, please monitor for reportable diseases and contact your county health department if you identify cases.

Most importantly, everyone should make sure they’re up-to-date with routine childhood and adult vaccinations. DTaP vaccines are recommended for infants starting at two months and continuing routinely until the age of six. Tdap boosters are recommended for all adults, especially pregnant women. By getting the Tdap booster during pregnancy, both mom and baby will be protected against pertussis during the most vulnerable period of the child’s life.

Pertussis, like many other diseases, is a preventable illness. With each of us doing our part, we can keep Florida’s babies, children, and adults safe from infectious diseases.

By Dr. Celeste Philip, Deputy Secretary for Health

Dr. Celeste Philip Deputy Secretary for Health Image/FLDOH
Dr. Celeste Philip
Deputy Secretary for Health