Lessons from COVID can help in pertussis prevention

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Lessons from COVID can help in pertussis prevention
Pertussis or whooping cough can prove fatal to infants under 6 months of age. Above, a baby receives a vaccine in San Juan. —LYN RILLON
Lessons from COVID can help in pertussis prevention
Pertussis or whooping cough can prove fatal to infants under 6 months of age. Above, a baby receives a vaccine in San Juan. —LYN RILLON

Take heed from the lessons of the pandemic years.

This seems to be the rallying call of medical experts amid the pertussis outbreak in the country that has so far taken 49 lives, mostly children. Pertussis or whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory disease that can prove fatal to kids, particularly infants under 6 months of age.

Characterized by lengthy coughing fits marked by a whooping sound, vomiting, fatigue and/or difficulty breathing, pertussis can be especially dangerous to babies, causing them to stop breathing altogether. (Vaccinated teens and adults generally experience milder symptoms reminiscent of the common cold.)

While the disease can be treated with antibiotics (following the doctor’s recommendation), “the body’s ability to survive greatly depends on the patient’s immunity and nutrition,” Dr. Daisy Ilagan-Tagarda, internal medicine and infectious disease specialist, told Lifestyle. And if the novel coronavirus that swept the world taught us anything, it is the importance of preventing contagion by employing basic measures that perhaps should be second nature by now.


First and foremost is making sure to get the necessary vaccination. Majority of the cases of pertussis infection involve unvaccinated children, which is lamentable given the fact that the disease is vaccine-preventable.

According to Dr. Ilagan-Tagarda, a Philippine Society for Microbiology and Infectious Diseases fellow, one of the reasons for the outbreak that experts are looking into is the decrease in the rate of vaccination. With the public’s attention laser-focused on COVID the past few years and the pandemic inciting lingering fear of visiting health centers, many children have yet to be vaccinated against various infectious diseases.

Just for the week of March 10 to 16, the Department of Health (DOH) reported 28 new pertussis cases, surpassing the tally for the Jan. 1–March 16 period last year. To date, the number of patients infected by the Bordetella pertussis bacteria this year has already risen to an alarming 862.

Dr. Ilagan-Tagarda emphasized the importance of vaccines, which she said adds a layer of protection against infections.

Lessons from COVID can help in pertussis prevention
Dr. Daisy Ilagan-Tagarda —CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Infants as young as six weeks may already be given the pentavalent vaccine which protects against pertussis, diphtheria, tetanus, hepatitis B and Haemophilus influenzae type B. Children aged 1 to 6 may receive booster shots, while older children and adults should consult their doctor on applicable vaccines.

Because newborns can be vulnerable to infection from their mothers, pregnant women are also advised to consult their obstetrician-gynecologist about getting the TDAP (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis) vaccine.

“While pertussis is not life-threatening to the mother, it can be transmitted to the newborn. That’s why vaccination during pregnancy is recommended to protect newborns, as it also allows the mother to pass antibodies to her unborn child,” added Dr. Ilagan-Tagarda.

Early consultation

Aside from getting vaccinated, Dr. Ilagan-Tagarda pointed out the importance of practices such as early consultation, mask wearing, proper cough etiquette and hand washing as additional ways to prevent diseases.

Immediate consultation with a doctor is recommended to help mitigate the spread of disease. And when symptoms begin to manifest, patients must isolate themselves lest they become a source of outbreak.

Dr. Ilagan-Tagarda stressed, “If patients really must go out when they are experiencing symptoms, we highly recommend wearing a mask because it has been proven that masks offer great protection against the transmission of bacteria or viruses.”

Places that are crowded or have poor ventilation make it especially easy to spread diseases.

Echoing the DOH’s recent statement, Dr. Ilagan-Tagarda said that while there is no need to make mask wearing mandatory, it is still advisable to exercise such on special situations.

“As a doctor, I don’t wear a mask when I’m outdoors. But when I’m in crowded places or areas where there are high-risk individuals, like the hospital where there are immunocompromised people, even if nobody imposes it, I still a wear mask for the protection of other people.”

She added, “We need to understand the benefit of wearing a mask in the right place and at the right time, as it can help prevent transmission of respiratory diseases, not only COVID-19 or pertussis. We should promote the accessibility and affordability of masks to everyone.”

Encouraging masking

Despite—or perhaps precisely because of—having been required to wear masks practically everywhere for years due to COVID-19, mask-wearing has yet to become automatic for Filipinos when they are feeling under the weather or if there’s an outbreak of diseases. In fact, many continue to be averse to mask-wearing, citing discomfort or added expense. But Dr. Ilagan-Tagarda pointed out that getting sick is even more expensive.

“They get angry saying, ‘Aren’t we done with wearing masks yet?’” said Dr. Ilagan-Tagarda. “But we actually want to encourage masking, especially for those with symptoms.”

Cloth masks, according to her, can still be part of the strategy to reduce the transmission of respiratory infections, but these are less effective than medical-grade masks.

Respiratory hygiene is another thing we should have perfected during the COVID years. Remember to keep distance from people exhibiting symptoms; turn away from people when coughing or sneezing; and always cover your nose and mouth with tissue. In the absence of a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper arm or sleeve instead to keep the bacteria or virus from spreading. Avoid using your hand as cover.

In any case, hand-washing should be routine, Dr. Ilagan-Tagarda said, adding it’s the cheapest way to prevent the transmission of any kind of infection.

“I think there’s improvement in the habits of Filipinos, but not totally,” she said, recommending that people bring alcohol or other sanitizers with them in case there is no soap or water for cleaning their hands while they are out and about.

With the continued rise in cases, educating people is one of the ways to prevent and mitigate the impact of a pertussis outbreak, said Dr. Ilagan-Tagarda.

“Education programs can inform parents and caregivers about the vaccination schedules for children. It is also one of the best ways to combat misinformation about diseases like pertussis.”

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