Protected Against Whooping Cough? Most Adults Don't Know

(Image credit:

Rates of whooping cough in the United States are at their highest level in decades, yet most adults don't know whether they are adequately protected against the disease, results from a new poll suggest.

In the poll, 61 percent of adults said they didn't know when they were last vaccinated against whooping cough, also known as pertussis. Just 20 percent said they were vaccinated within the last 10 years, which is the recommended timeframe for vaccination.

Vaccination against pertussis as an adult — with the tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (Tdap) vaccine — is important because it protects against pertussis and also helps prevent the spread of the disease to newborns. Children under 6 months are most at risk of dying from pertussis, and children under 2 months cannot be vaccinated against the disease. Most infants who develop pertussis caught the disease from an older child or adult, according to the researchers, of the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health.

"Almost two-thirds of adults were not aware of their Tdap vaccination status, and thus cannot be sure they are able to prevent the spread of pertussis to a vulnerable newborn," the researchers said.

Cases of whooping cough have been on the rise in recent years, and in 2012, the number of illnesses soared to more than 41,000 — more than any other year since 1955.

People ages 19 and over who did not receive a Tdap booster in adolescence should receive one dose of the vaccine (in place of a tetanus booster shot), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Adults who expect to have contact with a newborn less than one year old should also get a Tdap booster, the CDC says. Women are recommended to receive a Tdap booster during each pregnancy.

Most of the adults surveyed in the poll (72 percent) agreed that parents of newborns have the right to insist that friends and family get the pertussis vaccine before visiting the newborn baby.

"This parental approach, if it becomes the standard, may have a very positive impact decreasing the number of newborns who become severely ill or die as a result of pertussis," the researchers said.

The poll surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,182 adults in January of this year. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 1 to 4 percentage points.

Follow Rachael Rettner @RachaelRettner. Follow LiveScience @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.