Warning for all ages as whooping cough on rise in France

The condition starts with cold-like symptoms before the coughing becomes more severe. It can be dangerous - even fatal - for infants and vulnerable people

The condition can be particularly dangerous for infants but Santé publique France has warned it can affect all ages

Cases of whooping cough are rising across France among all ages, the French health authority has warned, saying vulnerable groups should check their vaccinations are up to date.

Cases of the illness - called coqueluche in French - have been rising since the start of 2024, states Santé publique France (SPF). It has called for people to be vigilant.

Read more: CALENDAR: Check to see you are up to date with vaccinations in France 

It said 15 clusters of cases have been reported in eight regions of mainland France already this year. In comparison, two clusters were reported over the whole of 2023, in Ile-de-France.

‘Whooping cough’ is so-called in English because it tends to cause people to cough so much that they have no more air in their lungs, and they then need to quickly and audibly breathe in to catch their breath, causing a ‘whooping’ sound. 

Children with the illness are typically more likely to ‘whoop’ than adults.

The medical name for the illness is pertussis, after the bacteria that causes it (Bordetella pertussis or Bordetella parapertussis). It is a respiratory infection caused by bacteria, and easily transmitted by air, through contact with a sick person with a cough. 

Symptoms of whooping cough

It starts with common cold-like symptoms, including a sore throat and runny nose, and a low-grade fever. The coughing becomes more severe over one to three weeks. 

It can then cause frequent, long coughing fits that can cause breathing difficulties. In severe cases, people may vomit after coughing. The coughing typically becomes worse at night.

It can be especially serious for infants - who can struggle to breathe as a result of the coughing and may even turn blue or experience low heart rate - and vulnerable people including pregnant women, and the immunocompromised. It is rarely fatal, but deaths are more common in infants and unvaccinated vulnerable people.

Infants under three should usually be taken to hospital for treatment.

Vaccination needed for vulnerable

SPF warns that the “circulation of the bacteria in the EU could intensify over the coming months”, and said that “vigilance is still called for, with the need to raise public awareness of this disease and its prevention methods”.

Vaccination is the preferred prevention method, as well as barrier methods such as avoiding getting too close to people, especially the most vulnerable. 

Very young infants are often too young to be vaccinated, so teenagers and adults who may have let their coverage lapse should be vaccinated as soon as possible to offer wider protection, said SPF.

Doctors can also prescribe antibiotics to prevent transmission. People are generally no longer contagious around three weeks after the coughing first begins.

France in better shape than other countries so far

However, the authority was clear to state that the situation in France is not at the same level as in some other European countries and the USA.

“To date, the French situation is not comparable with that of our European neighbours and those on the other side of the Atlantic, who have been reporting several hundred cases a week since the last quarter of 2023,” it said.

It said that whooping cough tends to recur in cycles every three to five years but noted that France had not suffered an epidemic in 2021-22. Previous epidemics were recorded In France in 1997, 2000, 2005, 2009, 2012-2013 and 2017-2018. 

SPF said that it might have expected another rebound in France in 2021-22, but that “sanitary measures…in the context of Covid-19 probably reduced whooping cough transmission” then.

Epidemics elsewhere

Major whooping cough epidemics have recently been declared in Croatia, Denmark and the UK; while significant spikes in cases have also been reported in Belgium, Spain and Germany. 

Deaths were reported this week in Czechia, in the UK between January and March, and in Serbia at the end of January.

There are thought to be 40 million cases and 300,000 deaths each year worldwide from whooping cough, reports SPF.