Health Officials Worry That Whooping Cough Is Growing Resistant To Antibiotics

This past year, the United States experienced the worst whooping cough outbreak in decades. Public health officials warn that the unusually high number of pertussis cases is partly due to the fact that “unacceptably low” numbers of Americans are getting their shots — but it could also be because whooping cough is becoming resistant to the vaccines currently used against it.

Researchers have discovered the first drug-resistant strain of whooping cough in the Philadelphia area. They’re currently looking into it further to try to determine whether those cases — which seem to be similar to a bug that’s also popped up in Japan, France, and Finland — are indicative of a larger problem, and a potential source of the recent elevated levels of whooping cough across the country:

“It’s quite intriguing. It’s the first time we’ve seen this here,” said Dr. Tom Clark of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. […]

Whooping cough is a highly contagious disease that can strike people of any age but is most dangerous to children. It was once common, but cases in the U.S. dropped after a vaccine was introduced in the 1940s.

An increase in illnesses in recent years has been partially blamed on a version of the vaccine used since the 1990s, which doesn’t last as long. Last year, the CDC received reports of 41,880 cases, according to a preliminary count. That included 18 deaths.

The new study suggests that the new whooping cough strain may be why more people have been getting sick. Experts don’t think it’s more deadly, but the shots may not work as well against it.

Drug-resistant diseases are becoming a serious public health threat, as antibiotics are gradually losing their effectiveness against the bacteria they’re intended to treat. Global health officials warn that, unless the scientific community and pharmaceutical industry both invest in developing more effective drugs, an impending “antibiotic apocalypse” will eventually make common infections incurable.

Whooping cough is just the latest in a long list of common diseases that are showing signs of outpacing antibiotic treatments. Drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis and gonorrhea also have public health officials concerned. Even though the World Health Organization has called for a global effort to focus on developing new vaccines, the production of new types of antibiotics has lagged behind over the past decade — largely because testing and marketing new drugs isn’t as profitable for the pharmaceutical industry.