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12-11-2015 | Children who develop whooping cough may be at higher risk of epilepsy

13 November 2015
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A study published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association highlights that Whooping cough (pertussis) may be linked to a slightly increased risk for young children to develop epilepsy.

Whooping cough is a respiratory infection that can be prevented by vaccination and a vaccine is currently given in Ireland as part of the 6-in-1 vaccine. The number of whooping cough cases in Ireland decreased in the early 2000s but has risen in recent years. Between 2003 and 2008, 40 to 104 cases were notified annually but this doubled from 2010 to 2011 and doubled again from 2011 to 2012.

In the new study, a team led by Dr. Morten Olsen from Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark studied 4,700 Danish children with whooping cough. The children in the study were born between 1978 and 2011 and were followed until 2011.

Each of the children with whooping cough was compared against 10 matched children from the general population. While the study does not establish a cause and effect, the researchers reported that by the age of 10, epilepsy was diagnosed in 1.7% of children in the whooping cough group and 0.9% of those in the general population.

The age at which the child had contracted whooping cough seemed relevant. Children who were older than 3 years old when they were diagnosed with whooping cough were no more likely to develop epilepsy than those in the general population, the study found.

The link between whooping cough and epilepsy had been previously unknown, the researchers said. They suggest that brain damage caused by lack of oxygen during coughing fits may be one reason for the possible association.

Other experts have since suggested that severe coughing could lead to increased pressure in the blood vessels in the brain and possible bleeding that could lead to neuronal damage.

"Although the association we identify may be important on a population level, the individual child admitted to hospital with pertussis will have a very low risk of epilepsy," said Dr. Olsen, adding that there can be many other complications of whooping cough, which are all good reasons to continue vaccinating children.

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