Whooping cough

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is an extremely contagious disease, which is caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis. In very young children, particularly those under 6 months old, the disease can be life-threatening.

To protect young children, infants in Belgium have been systematically vaccinated against whooping cough since the 90s. Since 2013, pregnant women have also been advised to have the vaccination.


What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is a very infectious disease that is caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis. The disease is characterised by persistent bouts of coughing and is especially dangerous for babies. Whooping cough is only spread between humans: infectious droplets can be released by coughing, sneezing or even just breathing. The infectious period usually lasts up to approximately 3 weeks after the start of the cough. 


The first symptoms arise around 7 to 10 days after infection. The course of the disease has 3 stages. In the first stage, the symptoms are difficult to distinguish from a cold. There then follows a period with long bouts of coughing, often interspersed with wheezing/gasping for breath with a “whoop” sound. The violent coughing can sometimes trigger vomiting. After approximately 4 weeks, the bouts of coughing reduce in number and severity (convalescence stage).

Not everyone shows the typical symptoms. In newborn babies, whooping cough can present as periods in which they stop breathing (apnoea) and turn blue, without coughing. In older, vaccinated people, the only symptom is often a persistent cough. 


For the diagnosis, the bacteria or the bacteria’s genetic material must be detected. This is usually done with a deep nose swab (PCR or culture on a nasopharyngeal sample). Antibodies can also be detected in a blood sample. The detection of antibodies takes preference if the cough has been present for longer than 3 weeks.


In Belgium infants have been systematically vaccinated against whooping cough since the 90s. To remain adequately protected, it is necessary to repeat the vaccine regularly. Infants, who are too young to be vaccinated themselves, can gain excellent protection through vaccination of the mother during pregnancy. This has been recommended in Belgium since 2013.

You can see the basic vaccination schedules here for Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia (with the German-speaking community) and the recommendations from the Superior Health Council regarding the whooping cough vaccination for children, pregnant women and adults


Treatment is usually with antibiotics. In some cases, it can be useful for family members to take antibiotics as well. In young children aged 0 to 3 months hospitalisation is recommended.


Want to know more? 

See the ‘Publications’ section below and read more about Sciensano’s role in monitoring the number of whooping cough cases in Belgium

Sciensano is responsible for surveillance of the number of whooping cough cases in Belgium. One of these data sources is the National Reference Centre for Pertussis, a collaboration between UZ Brussel (Brussels University Hospital) and Sciensano. Sciensano also coordinates the paediatric surveillance network, Pedisurv. The collected information is offered to policymakers to support the health policy. Finally, the Quality of Vaccines and Blood Products department is the Belgian Official Medicines Control Laboratory (OMCL) which is responsible for quality control of the vaccines...

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