Featured research: Tackling whooping cough

The NIHR Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Facility at the Southampton General Hospital is taking part in a new study, aiming to develop better understanding of how to prevent whooping cough. 

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Whooping cough

Whooping cough, also called pertussis, is a bacterial infection of the lungs and airways. It is caused by a bacterium called Bordetella pertussis (B. pertussis). Whooping cough can cause repeated coughing bouts that can last for two to three months or more. Young babies under six months of age are typically affected and are in the age group that is most vulnerable to serious complications. In older children and adults it tends to be less serious, although it can still be unpleasant and frustrating.

B. pertussis is spread in the droplets produced when someone with the infection coughs or sneezes. Therefore you can catch whooping cough if you come into close contact with someone with the infection.

The first symptoms are similar to those of a cold. Intense coughing bouts typically start about a week later. Antibiotics will help stop the infection spreading to others, and usually (but do not always) reduce the symptoms. If antibiotics are given during the early phase of the infection, it is believed that the cough can be prevented, but there are exceptions to this rule and it is possible that people who are given antibiotics even during the early phase of illness may go on to develop the cough.

Although a pertussis vaccine is offered to all babies in the UK, the vaccine does not offer lifelong protection. In fact, protection by the vaccine seems to be less nowadays in comparison to 15 years ago.

Better prevention

This study is part of a project that aims to develop a better vaccine against whooping cough. To do this we need to know more about the immune response generated against B. pertussis and what kind of immune response protects against whooping cough. This study is designed to look at those particular questions by inoculating healthy volunteers with nose drops containing B. pertussis, then monitoring their immune response before giving them an antibiotic to clear B. pertussis.