Health officials in Suffolk County, New York, report whooping cough outbreak over the last month

Whooping cough cases in 2023 were nearly twice as high as in 2019.

January 2, 2024, 9:55 PM

Health officials in Suffolk County, New York, are warning the public that cases of the respiratory bacterial infection called pertussis, also known as whooping cough, have been on the rise in the area.

In Suffolk County, 108 cases of pertussis were reported or suspected in 2023. One hundred of those cases have been reported since November 28, 2023, a spokesperson for the Suffolk County Department of Health Services told ABC News.

Officials say there have been no known hospitalizations to date, and this outbreak has been mostly among vaccinated children and their parents, according to a press release.

"The recent uptick in pertussis cases in New York serves as an important signal for health departments nationwide to ramp up monitoring and vaccination efforts," Dr. John Brownstein, epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and ABC News medical contributor, told ABC News.

Across the United States, pertussis cases in 2023 were over twice as many as in 2022 but remain significantly lower than in pre-pandemic years, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It is not uncommon for pertussis outbreaks to impact vaccinated populations, but when it does, infections are usually milder, according to the CDC. Health officials say vaccination is still the best possible protection and prevention.

"This is a reminder of the persistent threat of vaccine-preventable diseases and the need for communities to stay vigilant in protecting their most vulnerable populations, especially infants and the immunocompromised," Brownstein said.

In Suffolk County, 64 cases of pertussis were reported in 2019, according to the department of health services - current cases nearly double that.

Like many respiratory infections other than COVID-19, pertussis cases were much lower in 2020-2022 in Suffolk County and across the U.S. Experts say this is likely due to a combination of reduced testing for other infections and pandemic precautions like masking that reduced the spread of pertussis.

The CDC reported that 5,436 pertussis cases were reported in the U.S. in 2023, and there were 2,388 cases in 2022. In comparison, there were about 15,000 and 18,000 reported cases in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

What parents need to know

Whooping cough, officially known as Bortadella pertussis, is a vaccine-preventable illness. This infection can be treated with antibiotics and causes some similar symptoms as common cold respiratory illnesses, like nasal congestion, runny nose, and low grade-fever, but the duration of cough can last weeks to months, according to the CDC. Someone is usually considered infectious for about two weeks after they develop the cough. The CDC also says babies can get the most severe illness from pertussis and may not have the characteristic cough but may struggle to breathe, turn blue, or even stop breathing.

"With so many respiratory illnesses currently circulating, some for which there are no treatment, we wanted to make sure that parents know that pertussis, also called whooping cough, can be treated with antibiotics if diagnosed early," Dr. Gregson Pigott, Suffolk County Health Commissioner, said in the release. "Whooping cough can be very serious for infants too young to be vaccinated, which is why we are alerting both medical providers and the public that this illness is circulating," Pigott said.

The CDC and the American College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians recommend that pregnant women get vaccinated with a pertussis shot, called Tdap, in the third trimester of pregnancy to pass on antibody protection to their newborn. According to the CDC immunization schedule, babies should get three doses of a whooping cough shot – called DTaP – at 2, 4, and 6 months old, with two additional boosters at 15-18 months old and 4-6 years old. Older kids then get a Tdap shot when they are between 11-12 years old, followed by once every 10 years.

"Parents should be aware that the rise in pertussis cases, predominantly affecting children, underscores the importance of timely vaccinations, including the DTaP and Tdap boosters, according to the recommended schedule," Brownstein said.

Dr. Jade A Cobern, MD, MPH, is a board-certified pediatrician specializing in general preventive medicine and is a member of the ABC News Medical Unit. Youri Benadjaoud also contributed to this report.