Grandma baby whopping cough

Whooping cough: confronting the hidden risk to infants

Recognizing a potentially serious health problem.

Whooping cough is a highly contagious disease that affects the lungs. The term “whooping” originated from the sound an infected person often makes after an associated coughing fit—a high-pitched “whoop”. It is also called “pertussis” because it is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis.

Whooping cough can cause serious, even life-threatening, complications in infants, especially those who are not fully vaccinated. That’s why we are so concerned about raising awareness. It can spread easily through coughing and sneezing. If one person in the family has whooping cough, other members of the family are at risk of getting whooping cough. 

Whopping Cough Baby Car Seat

Complications in infants can include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Seizures
  • Brain disorders
  • Hospitalization
  • In very rare cases, death

Unmet goals

Whooping cough is a serious threat, but vaccination can help reduce the risk of catching it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are two vaccines used to help prevent whooping cough: DTaP and Tdap. Children younger than 7 years old get DTaP, while older children and adults get Tdap.

The CDC also recommends that anyone who isn’t up-to-date with their whooping cough vaccines to get vaccinated at least two weeks before coming into close contact with a baby. These two weeks give the body enough time to help build up protection against whooping cough.


of adults over 19 years old have had the Tdap vaccine

A public health initiative

We decided to create an awareness and education initiative to help get adult whooping cough vaccination numbers closer to those that the CDC recommends. Our goal is to be a steward of public health. As we see it, the health of many infants may depend on it.

Grandparents are the key

To help improve whooping cough vaccination rates, we want to reach adults who have close contact with infants. Parents may be more likely to talk to their healthcare providers about recommended vaccinations for themselves and their children. But grandparents may not mention to their doctor that they have a new grandchild.

In research, we found that grandparents generally have very low awareness of the danger that whooping cough poses to infants. The good news is that, once they are made aware of the risks, they want to help protect their grandchild and are very likely to talk to their doctor or pharmacist about whooping cough and vaccination.

Whopping Cough quote callout

Developing the Big Bad Cough campaign

Reaching grandparents with the right message, in a way that will get their attention, is essential to public health goals. That is where the Big Bad Cough campaign comes in. Drawing from the classic children’s tale of Little Red Riding Hood, the ads feature a wolf disguised as a grandmother interacting closely with her new grandchild.

The wolf represents the hidden danger of whooping cough, carried unknowingly by the grandmother. For some, it can be a bit scary, but it is a memorable way to convey the importance of the message. In our testing with grandparents, we found that this approach was very well received, and overall, motivated them to seek vaccination—helping to bring vaccination rates closer to the CDC recommendations.

GSK’s commitment to public health

The Big Bad Cough initiative launched in April 2015 with print and online advertising and was followed by TV ads in June. We are hopeful that this campaign will bring greater awareness to adults, especially new grandparents, so that they can talk to their doctor or pharmacist about whooping cough and vaccination. We have also communicated our support for this important public health issue to the CDC and other key public health stakeholders.

At GSK, we are committed to helping families better understand and address the danger of whooping cough and to working with the public health community. We’re working hard to help reduce the impact of whooping cough.

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