Explosion in cases of whooping cough continues in France

Such a rise has not been seen for 40 years, a researcher at Institut Pasteur says

Whooping cough can begin with cold-like symptoms but become a more serious, long-running ‘100 day’ cough that is especially dangerous for infants

Cases of whooping cough continue to rise in France, with 11 times more cases recorded since the start of 2024 than seen over the whole of last year, new figures show.

Health authorities Institut Pasteur and Santé publique France are warning people to take prevention measures to protect the most vulnerable in society.

At least 5,854 cases of whooping cough - la coqueluche in French - have been reported this year just five months into 2024, considerably more than the total number of cases (495) for the whole of 2023.

Whooping cough case spikes tend to occur in cycles every three-to-five years, but a researcher at Institut Pasteur, Sylvain Brisse, told FranceInfo that the current rise in cases was an “explosion…not seen for 40 years”.

“We have never seen…this number of cases, nor such a fast increase,” he said. 

Previous epidemics were recorded In France in 1997, 2000, 2005, 2009, 2012-2013 and 2017-2018. 

“Whooping cough is cyclical…so we were expecting a new peak, but we didn’t expect it to be this significant,” said another Institut Pasteur researcher, Professor Julie Toubiana, to BFMTV.

Read also: Warning for all ages as whooping cough on rise in France 

Mr Brisse added that the cough could be spreading particularly severely now due to the public’s lack of immunity as a result of the Covid pandemic.

He said that “we are worried that it could last for several months, including during the Olympics and Paralympics”. The events are set to begin on July 26 and last until September 8.

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis, and can last for months. 

It is nicknamed the ‘100 day cough’ because of how long symptoms can persist. It can be especially dangerous - even fatal - to unvaccinated infants and older people.

Researchers estimate that one ill person can infect up to 15 others - up to 10 times’ more than Covid. If whooping cough is identified, the main course of treatment is antibiotics. These do not improve symptoms, but they can stop the infection from spreading to others.

The condition is not only spreading in France; cases are also rising sharply in the UK, Denmark, Netherlands, and Czechia.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough? 

It typically begins like a common cold, with a sore throat, a runny nose and sneezing, and a low-grade fever. It then becomes a cough, which can be violent and cause ‘coughing fits’.

These can sometimes prevent the patient from catching their breath, causing the ‘whooping’ sound as they struggle to inhale. Children and infants may start to ‘turn blue’ during a fit, and even vomit afterwards.

The coughing tends to get worse at night, and can prevent the patient from sleeping, which can cause them to feel even worse and delay recovery even further.

How can I avoid catching it? 

The best way to avoid it is to make sure your vaccinations are up to date. 

The whooping cough vaccine is mandatory in France from the age of two, and recommended at two and 11 months. 

Boosters are advised for children at age six, 11, and 13; and for adults once every 20 years - for example, once at age 25, again at 45, and again at 65.

You can also try to avoid close contact with people who have it (or are suspected). Pregnant women are also advised to get the vaccination, even if they have had it before pregnancy, as it can create antibodies that are then passed on to the foetus.

Read also: CALENDAR: Check to see you are up to date with vaccinations in France
Read also: French pharmacies can prescribe and give vaccines: we explain which 

What if I suspect I have whooping cough? 

If your cold does not get better after a week or two, and you are coughing violently, consult your GP and tell them you suspect whooping cough. 

You will need to have a test, which uses a long swab, similar to Covid PCR tests. If whooping cough is diagnosed, you will be prescribed antibiotics for around five days.

During this time, avoid contact with other people to prevent infection, especially older people, young children and babies, especially newborns. If you must leave the house, wear a mask.

If you suspect that a child or a baby has whooping cough, consult your GP urgently. If they are struggling to breathe and turning blue, seek emergency help.

You may wish to take measures at home to improve the symptoms of the cough, including taking over-the-counter cold medicine, cough and throat lozenges, inhaling hot steam, drinking tea with ginger and lemon, and sleeping with more pillows behind your back to keep your head slightly elevated.