Significantly more people have fallen ill with whooping cough in Germany this year than in the same period of previous years. By mid-May, around 4,500 cases had been reported to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). In 2023 there were only around 1,500 cases in the same period. The numbers have also risen sharply across Europe.

According to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the number of around 32,000 cases reported in the first three months of this year was just below the full-year average from 2012 to 2019 (around 38,100).

According to pediatrician and epidemiologist Viktoria Schönfeld from the RKI, this can have several causes. “There are natural fluctuations that mean that significantly higher numbers can be observed every three, four, five years. It may be that we are now slipping into something like that,” said the RKI expert to the German Press Agency. According to the RKI, whooping cough cases are also increasing every few years in other Western countries.

Increase could be related to catch-up effects

According to Schönfeld, the increase is also related to so-called catch-up effects. During the corona pandemic, many people had no contact with the whooping cough pathogen because of the infection protection measures, as the expert explained. The immunity in the population is therefore lower and the pathogen can spread more easily. This can also be observed with other infectious diseases. Another reason could be that tests for whooping cough are carried out more frequently today.

The expert does not consider the development in Germany to be particularly worrying. “We have a year with a lot of whooping cough illnesses, but there have also been years that had more whooping cough illnesses in the first quarters.”

Whooping cough is particularly dangerous for infants

According to the RKI, the disease is often manifested by a long-lasting cough that can last several weeks to months. For healthy adults without risk factors – such as old age – an infection is not very dangerous, explained Schönfeld. For newborns, however, it is: “Whooping cough is really dangerous for infants, especially those who are very small, i.e. less than six months old.” When infants become ill, many of them come to the hospital for observation or treatment. “The risk with infants is that they don’t necessarily show up with a cough, but rather, as with many other illnesses, they stop drinking and become weak. Instead of coughing attacks, they often have pauses in breathing. That’s what makes the whole thing dangerous.” But deaths are rare in Germany.

According to the expert, vaccination is important. In Germany, three vaccinations are recommended for newborns at the ages of two, four and eleven months. “The problem is that the vaccination no longer works as well after a few years.” Booster vaccinations are therefore important, especially to protect infants from infection. “Whooping cough is incredibly contagious,” said Schönfeld.

In Germany, the vaccination rate for school starters in 2018 was around 93 percent, according to the RKI. According to Schönfeld, the rate for young people and adults needs to be improved significantly and for pregnant women, at around 40 percent, it is “significantly too low.”