The objective of this study was to compare the spread of pertussis in children and adults being secondary contacts after household exposure. The study was nested in an efficacy trial of an acellular pertussis vaccine. The spread of the disease was also monitored with respect to gender and antibiotic therapy. A total of 453 index cases, of which 133 were monitored for adult disease, fulfilled the WHO definition of pertussis. They had contacts to 173 unvaccinated children aged 6-47 months, and a total of 101 adults with pertussis were followed. Detection of the bacteria, or a significant increase of specific antibodies confirmed the diagnosis. Secondary spread of the disease was assumed, when a household member coughed for 7 days or more and had laboratory evidence for pertussis. Crude attack rates (AR) were 69% in children and 31% in adults (P < 0.05). AR in children were independent of gender but more women than men (P=0.02) were affected in those households where the index case was a child. Erythromycin treatment of the index case reduced the AR in exposed toddlers from 80% to 57% (P=0.06), and in exposed adults from 40% to 21% (P=0.2). Erythromycin therapy in contacts did not alter the clinical course of the disease significantly.
Conclusions: In a household study of pertussis, 69% of children and 31% of adults (more women than men) contracted the disease. Erythromycin reduced the number of infections in household contacts, but did not alter the clinical course in those who contracted pertussis.