An Australian research team says instances of whooping cough in the country are at ‘epidemic proportions,’ and hopes a new vaccine currently in development will dramatically reduce rates of the disease in Australia and around the world.
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10 Feb 2014 - 1:17 PM  UPDATED 11 Feb 2014 - 2:43 PM

An Australian research team that is developing a new vaccine against whooping cough hopes it will dramatically reduce rates of the disease in Australia and around the world. 

Dr Trilochan Mukkur, who heads the team, says thousands of Australians are affected by the disease each year and the numbers were a cause for concern.

"It's in epidemic proportions at the moment," he told SBS. "Children and infants under six months old are affected the most, but adults get it too."

There is currently a vaccination available against whooping cough (Pertussis), which is funded for children under the Immunise Australia Program.

But Dr Mukkur, Associate Professor of Medical Microbiology and immunology at Curtin University’s School of Biomedical Sciences, told SBS immunised people could still contract the disease and needed multiple "boosters" to stay protected.

He said the new vaccine, which would be administered as a nasal spray rather than an injection, showed promising signs in early clinical trials.

"It provides a very strong protection against the pathogen that causes whooping cough," he said.

"It will provide protection requiring almost no boosters - perhaps one booster at the most."

He estimated trials on humans would commence in two years' time and if the trials were a success, the vaccine could be available to the public in five to six years.

Higher level of protection needed

The news is welcomed by NSW mother Alison Gaylard, whose two daughters both contracted whooping cough in early 2012.

Her eldest daughter, then aged six, had been fully immunised against the disease and her youngest, aged two, was part-way through the vaccination program.

"I'm excited to hear there's something in the pipeline," she said. "I hope the level of protection is higher than the one currently used."

Ms Gaylard said many adults passed on whooping cough to children and there was not enough information out there about the need for adults to get boosters.

Her youngest daughter was born shortly after the case of NSW baby Dana McCaffery, who died of whooping cough in 2009 at just four weeks old.

She said the case had compelled her to get an immunisation booster herself against whooping cough.

Ms Gaylard said watching her daughters battle whooping cough had been a "devastating" experience.

Between coughing and "whooping," both girls had struggled to breathe, vomited constantly, turned grey in complexion and gone blue around the mouth.

"I just had to look at them with a calm expression," she said.

"They're looking at you for help but there's nothing you can do."

A worldwide problem

Whooping cough is a highly contagious disease caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis.

Symptoms such as coughing and "whooping" can cause respiratory complications which – in serious cases – may result in brain damage and even death.

Dr Mukkur said many people around the world could not afford the current whooping cough vaccine and he hoped to offer a cheaper alternative.

"A lot of people can’t afford to buy the current vaccine – certainly that’s true in developing nations," he said.

Dr Mukkur said Australia was "far behind" in terms of vaccine development around the world and the agencies that funded research here needed greater government support.

"The government really needs to provide more funding to these agencies to be able to cater to some of these new innovations," he said.

But Professor Robert Booy, Head of the Clinical Research team at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS), rejected the idea that Australia was lagging behind as "standard scientific bleat."

"For a small country, Australia punches well above its weight," he said.

"We have a long-standing history of successful vaccine development."

Professor Booy cited Ian Frazer's groundbreaking Gardasil vaccine against cervical cancer as an example.

He said there were numerous projects underway in Australia to develop vaccines for diseases such as malaria, and said the country contributed to many overseas projects as well.

Professor Booy noted that while many research programs showed early promise, it was important to remember that any projections were only hypothetical at this stage.

Dr Mukkur agreed that while there was a chance the vaccine he was developing would prove unsuccessful in later trials, at this stage all signs were good.

"We are certainly very hopeful that our vaccine will be one of the ones adopted worldwide," he said.