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Kid-friendly Fact Sheet

The Pertussis Disease Villain

Español: Hoja informativa para niños

Meet pertussis, a disease villain from BAM! Body and Mind, that leaves its victims literally gasping for air.

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Pertussis disease guy.
Real name: Pertussis
Also Known as (AKA): Whoopie Doopies
Known aliases: Bordetella pertussis (the bacteria that cause pertussis illness); whooping cough (for the “whoop” sound of someone gasping for air after a coughing spell)
Microbe type: bacterium


Pertussis leaves its victims literally gasping for air. At first, this tricky pretender might seem like a common cold—runny nose, fever, and cough. That’s stage one, when pertussis is just warming up. After a week or two, pertussis infection delivers its cruel surprise—extreme coughing spells. In these fits, people can literally cough so hard and long that they throw up or turn blue because they can’t breathe. Victims of pertussis can make a gasping “whoop” sound when they suck in air after a coughing fit. Pertussis infection is no joke—about half of babies who get it wind up in the hospital! Weeks after stage two, as the body finally fends off pertussis, the victim’s cough tapers down.

Powers & Abilities

Pertussis is highly contagious (easy to catch). Want proof? A person with pertussis will infect almost everyone in their household if those people are not protected by vaccination.

Preferred Method of Attack

Pertussis is primarily an “air attacker,” flying through the air, when an infected person coughs or sneezes, looking for its next victim. The bacterium may also infect people who touch places where wetness from those coughs and sneezes lands, and then touch their noses or mouths.

Known Weaknesses

Pertussis fears four letters — D, T, a and P — and two vaccines, “DTaP” and “Tdap”. Kids get “DTaP” while teenagers and grownups get a “boost” with “Tdap.” The vaccine ammo contains protection against diphtheria (the D), tetanus (the T), and acellular pertussis (aP). The term “acellular” (pronounced A-SELL-you-lur) means that the vaccine uses pieces of pertussis bacteria (not the whole bacterium cell). By using just pieces, the vaccine can “teach” the body to protect itself, with the fewest side effects.

Pertussis may be tough, but some simple basics can help to keep it in check: like washing hands with soap and covering up coughs and sneezes.

Preferred Victims

Pertussis is a bully, slamming young children and babies the hardest. Also, other bacterial infectors just love to join pertussis’ party, moving into a sick person’s pertussis-infected lungs and throat to cause their own infections. These are called “secondary infections.” Pertussis mostly pulls off its complications among young children, too—such as pneumonia, seizures, and encephalopathy (disease of the brain).

Precautions for the Public

Stay vigilant. We may think we’ve gotten the upper hand against pertussis. But, the disease is always scheming to get back on top. Since the 1980s, doctors have been reporting increasing numbers of pertussis cases. At the moment, there are still far fewer cases than there were before the vaccine. Still, the number of people infected seems to peak every three to five years, showing that pertussis is still out there figuring out its next move.

Area of Operations

Pertussis operates worldwide. It is especially busy and deadly in developing areas of the world, where fewer people are vaccinated and medical care is less accessible. Pertussis infects millions of people each year, and claims hundreds of thousands of lives.

Criminal Record

Doctors have been dealing with pertussis for at least 500 years. Finally, in 1906, scientists were able to identify and see Bordetella pertussis bacteria through a microscope—a first step in learning how to stop its evil tricks. From 1940–45, before the vaccine was widely used, 200,000 people in the United States were infected each year. In the 1940s, vaccinating against pertussis became routine and the tables turned for the better. Now, 10,000 to 40,000 people are infected each year, and very few die.

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