Original article (in Serbian) was published on 7/2/2024; Author: Teodora Koledin
In late January, Serbia’s Ministry of Health reported the deaths of four infants due to whooping cough, also known as pertussis. Just three days following the announcement, the death toll had risen to five.
That same day, speculations about this disease, the symptoms and the efficacy of vaccination appeared on social networks. However, to discern facts from misinformation, it’s essential to first understand what whooping cough is and its defining features.
Is whooping cough a virus?
Whooping cough is not caused by a virus, contrary to some claims circulating on social media. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes it as a “highly contagious respiratory disease.” The actual culprit behind pertussis is a specific type of bacterium known as Bordetella pertussis, making the disease exclusively human. Bordetella pertussis targets the cilia (tiny hair-like structures) in the upper respiratory system, adhering to them, releasing toxins that damage the cilia, and leading to swollen airways.
This disease is notably infectious, spreading rapidly through airborne particles. Research indicates that pertussis is “significantly more contagious than polio, measles, rubella, mumps, and diphtheria.” Vaccination is the key to prevention, with the recommendation being that children receive three doses of the DTaP vaccine to guard against the disease.
Is whooping cough a consequence of polluted air?
Whooping cough, contrary to a claim made by a social network X user suggesting it results from Serbia’s air pollution, is not directly caused by environmental contaminants. This post, which reached nearly 20,000 people by the time of our analysis, overlooks the fact that whooping cough is caused by the Bordetella pertussis bacterium. Without the presence of this specific bacterium, there can be no whooping cough, thereby rendering air pollution an unlikely primary cause of the disease.
However, it’s important to acknowledge that external factors may indirectly influence the incidence of pertussis, as is the case with many respiratory and bacterial diseases. Bacterial proliferation and spread are indeed influenced by environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity. Higher temperatures, provided they are not extreme enough to sterilize, can create conducive conditions for bacterial growth, including that of the Bordetella pertussis.
While it’s established that whooping cough is primarily caused by the Bordetella pertussis bacterium, research from China has uncovered associations between air pollution and an increased vulnerability to pertussis. Specifically, pollutants like sulfur dioxide (SO2), a potent lung irritant, and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), have been linked to compromised lung function and a heightened risk of respiratory diseases, including whooping cough. The proposed mechanism suggests that elevated levels of these substances can irritate the respiratory tract, thereby augmenting the likelihood of respiratory infections.
This relationship is particularly concerning for children, who are at an increased risk due to their faster breathing rates, tendency to spend more time outdoors, and the ongoing development of their lungs and immune systems.
Therefore, exposure to polluted air cannot be seen as a direct cause of whooping cough. However, exposure to poor-quality air can weaken the respiratory system’s defense mechanisms, making people more susceptible to infections, including pertussis.
What is the connection between vaccination coverage and the spread of the epidemic?
The discussion on vaccination coverage and its role in controlling epidemics, particularly whooping cough, has surfaced on social network X with misleading interpretations. A tweet highlighted Denmark’s high vaccination rate against whooping cough, noting that despite a 97% vaccination coverage, the country is reportedly experiencing a pertussis epidemic. This assertion, however, distorts the facts.
Vaccination against whooping cough is primarily designed to mitigate the severity of the disease in those infected, rather than outright preventing the occurrence of an epidemic. According to a report on pertussis in Denmark from last year, the effectiveness of the vaccine increases with the number of doses received by a child. Importantly, the immunity provided by the vaccine does not last indefinitely. Similar to the immunity gained through natural infection, vaccine-induced immunity begins to wane several years after the final dose.
The fact that 97 percent of Denmark’s population is vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis, coupled with the recent spread of whooping cough in the country, doesn’t negate the efficacy of vaccinations. Pertussis is known to recur in cycles every three to five years, a pattern that occurs regardless of how widely a population is immunized. Notably, Denmark experienced whooping cough epidemics in 2016 and 2019, with another surge in cases in 2023.
Newborns are particularly susceptible to pertussis infection, prompting Denmark’s vaccination strategy to prioritize this demographic’s protection. Epidemiologists also emphasize the importance of vaccinating adolescents and adults, as they can often be the source of infection for babies who are either unvaccinated or not fully immunized and face the most severe risks. In response to the 2019 epidemic, Denmark implemented a temporary vaccination program for whooping cough. Furthermore, there are proposals to make vaccination for pregnant women a permanent offering, highlighting the ongoing efforts to shield the most vulnerable from pertussis.
Considering the information provided, it’s evident that Denmark maintains a high vaccination rate against pertussis, and despite the presence of an epidemic, an essential aspect is often overlooked in the broader discussion: the mortality rate among newborns due to this respiratory disease. Since 1995, Denmark has recorded only seven infant deaths attributable to pertussis. In stark contrast, Serbia has experienced the deaths of five infants in just one pertussis cycle so far. When these figures are viewed proportionally, the mortality rate of newborns during a whooping cough cycle in Serbia is substantially higher than that in Denmark.
On the topic of chemtrails (yet again)
Speculations on social networks have, once again, veered into the realm of chemtrail theories — those trails left in the sky by airplanes (1, 2) that some claim are used to deliberately infect populations with various diseases, including the coronavirus (1, 2). Tragac has consistently debunked misinformation regarding airplanes alleged to spread diseases. Similarly, assertions linking chemtrails to the spread of whooping cough are entirely baseless.
As highlighted at the outset of this article, whooping cough is transmitted through air droplets, not by the air itself dispersing the disease. Specifically, it spreads from one individual to another via coughing or sneezing. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, they release droplets that carry the Bordetella pertussis bacteria, which can then lead to the further transmission of the infection. The likelihood of someone in close proximity becoming infected, along with the severity of the symptoms they may exhibit, is influenced by various factors, including the individual’s age and the robustness of their immune response.