Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

Electron microscope image of the bacteria Bordetella pertussis.

Electron microscope image of the bacteria Bordetella pertussis.

Sanofi Pasteur

Electron microscope image of the bacteria Bordetella pertussis.

Credit: Sanofi Pasteur

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory disease. It is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. Pertussis is known for uncontrollable, violent coughing that often makes it hard to breathe. After fits of many coughs, someone with pertussis often needs to take deep breaths, which result in a “whooping” sound.

Why Is the Study of Pertussis (Whooping Cough) a Priority for NIAID?

Pertussis most commonly affects infants and young children and can be fatal, especially in babies less than 1 year of age. With the resurgence in pertussis in recent years—in 2012, U.S. rates reached a 50-year high of 48,000 reported cases—there remains a strong need for research to support the development of new and effective prevention measures.

How Is NIAID Addressing This Critical Topic?

Over the years, and continuing into today, NIAID has played a key role in developing and implementing the pertussis research agenda, particularly in understanding the infection process and evaluating vaccines and vaccine regimens. 

To learn about risk factors for pertussis or whooping cough and current prevention and treatment strategies visit the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) pertussis (whooping cough) site.


In the 1940s, a combination diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine was introduced. Known as DTwP, the vaccine contained diphtheria toxin, tetanus toxin, and whole (but killed) Bordetella pertussis bacteria. By the mid-1970s, however, due to adverse reactions attributed to the whole-cell vaccine, some patients and parents began to reject the vaccine despite continuing circulation of B. pertussis and pertussis disease. As vaccination rates went down, infection rates crept up. To address these issues, the National Institutes of Health held an international symposium to examine the risks and benefits of whole-cell pertussis vaccination in November 1978.

Read more about the history and current research on a pertussis vaccine

Molecular & Genetic Research

NIAID supports research on how B. pertussis causes illness, particularly the role of various proteins and toxins produced by the bacteria and how the body responds to them. During infection, these toxins are released causing damage to the respiratory tract and inflammation that can persist for weeks or months.

Read more about molecular and genetic pertussis research
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