The bacterium that causes whooping cough has mutated in Australia, most likely in response to the vaccine used to prevent the disease, with a possible reduced effectiveness of the vaccine as a result, a new study shows.
A team of researchers analyzed strains of the virus from across Australia and found that many strains no longer produce a key surface protein called pertactin.
About 80 per cent of the 2012 whooping cough cases in Australia studied by the team were caused by pertactin-free strains. Pertactin is one of the three proteins present in the vaccine currently used in Australia.
“It’s like a game of hide and seek. It is harder for the antibodies made by the body’s immune system in response to vaccination to ‘search and destroy’ the whooping cough bacteria which lack pertactin,” says the senior author of the study.
Australia has only recently emerged from an epidemic of whooping cough that went on for an unusually long period with about 142,000 cases from 2008 to 2012. Although the number of cases identified was greatly increased by more and better testing, the epidemic was still a major one. Nine babies died of whooping cough during the five years.
Babies need to be immunized at six to eight weeks of age, four months and six months, with a booster at four years.
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