Whooping cough is evolving into a superbug

Australia needs a new whooping cough vaccine to ensure our most vulnerable are protected from the emergence of superbug strains, new UNSW research has shown.

The current vaccine, widely used since 2000, targets three antigens in the bacteria of the highly contagious respiratory disease which can be fatal to infants.

All babies under six months old – in particular, newborns not protected by maternal immunisation – are at risk of catching the vaccine-preventable disease because they are either too young to be vaccinated or have not yet completed the three-dose primary vaccine course.

Previous epidemic revealed evolving strains

Australia’s whooping cough epidemic from 2008 to 2012 saw more than 140,000 cases – with a peak of almost 40,000 in 2011 – and revealed the rise of evolving strains able to evade vaccine-generated immunity.

In a series of UNSW studies, with the latest published in the journal Vaccine, UNSW researchers took this knowledge further and showed, in a world-first discovery, that the evolving strains made additional changes to better survive in their host, regardless of that person’s vaccination status. They also identified new antigens as potential vaccine targets.

Microbiologist Laurence Luu, who led the team of researchers with Ruiting Lan, says whooping cough’s ability to adapt to vaccines and survive in humans might be the answer to its surprise resurgence despite Australia’s high vaccination rates.

“We found the whooping cough strains were evolving to improve their survival, regardless of whether a person was vaccinated or not, by producing more nutrient-binding and transport proteins, and fewer immunogenic proteins which are not targeted by the vaccine,” Luu says.

“This allows whooping cough bacteria to more efficiently scavenge nutrients from the host during infection, as well as to evade the body’s natural immune system because the bacteria are making fewer proteins that our body recognises.

“Put simply, the bacteria that cause whooping cough are becoming better at hiding and better at feeding – they’re morphing into a superbug.”

Whooping cough_vaccination_pregnant woman
Vaccination is especially important for children, pregnant women and people in contact with children. Credit: Shutterstock

Luu says it was therefore possible for a vaccinated person to contract the bacteria without symptoms materialising.

“So, the bacteria might still colonise you and survive without causing the disease – you probably wouldn’t know you’ve been infected with the whooping cough bacteria because you don’t get the symptoms,” he says.

“Another issue with the vaccine is that immunity wanes quickly – so, we do need a new vaccine that can better protect against the evolving strains, stop the transmission of the disease and provide longer lasting immunity.”

Future-proofing new vaccines against evolving strains

Lan says while he would like to see a new vaccine developed and introduced in the next five to 10 years, the research team’s important discovery did not render Australia’s whooping cough vaccine redundant.

“It is critical that people are vaccinated to prevent the spread of whooping cough – the current vaccine is still effective for protecting against the disease – but new vaccines need to be developed in the long-term.”

“We need more research to better understand the biology of the whooping cough bacteria, how they cause disease and what proteins are essential for the bacteria to cause infection, so that we can target these proteins in a new and improved vaccine,” he says.

“This will all help to future-proof new vaccines against the evolving whooping cough strains.”

Luu agrees it was crucial that Australia maintained its high vaccination coverage for whooping cough.

“Although the number of whooping cough cases has increased during the past decade, it’s still nowhere near as high as what it was before the introduction of whooping cough vaccines.”

“Therefore, we emphasise that Australia must maintain its high vaccination coverage to protect vulnerable newborns who are not protected by maternal immunity and cannot complete the three-dose primary vaccine course until they are six months old,” he says.

“So, vaccination is especially important for children, people who are in contact with children and pregnant women who need the vaccine to produce antibodies to protect their newborns from developing whooping cough in the first few weeks of life.”

In addition to babies under six months having a high risk of catching the disease, the elderly, people living with someone who has whooping cough and people who have not had a booster in the past 10 years, are also most at risk.

The disease is characterised by a “whooping” sound and sufferers find it difficult to breathe. It is more common during spring and spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes and other people breathe in the bacteria.

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.

Please login to favourite this article.