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As 2012 draws to a close, the number of whooping cough cases has reached an all-time high. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost 18,000 cases have been reported so far this year — more than doubling last year’s numbers.

Some blame the alarming rise in cases on an evolution in the bacteria that causes whooping cough, while others point to inadequacies in the vaccine. According to Ben Tanner, president of the Antimicrobial Test Laboratory in Round Rock, Texas, the vaccine may not be as effective as once believed.

“For the longest time, it was thought that the whooping cough vaccine gave long-term immunity,” says Tanner, “but scientists recently discovered that adults’ immunity tends to wear off as soon as three to six years after getting the vaccine. When an adult is infected with the germ, the symptoms aren’t as bad as when a child gets infected, but that adult can spread it around their family.”

Indeed whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a highly contagious disease that is most dangerous to children. It gets its name from the “whooping” sound the infected person makes as they gasp for breath.

But whooping cough does not survive for more than a few days on surfaces and is typically not spread by surface contact. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, droplets are propelled through the air and deposited on the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose or eyes of people nearby.

“Pertussis appears to be spread predominantly by the respiratory route,” explains Tanner. “In that sense, it’s very much like H1N1 or the flu virus. When we work in the lab, we have to make the environment very favorable to its survival just to get it to live on the surface for a couple of hours.”

Despite the fact that whooping cough is spread predominantly via the respiratory route, there is still the possibility for secondary spread associated with contaminated surfaces.

“Although it is less common, whooping cough can also be spread when a person touches a surface or object contaminated with infectious droplets and then touches his or her own mouth, nose or eyes,” says Darrel Hicks, director of environmental services and patient transportation at St. Luke’s Hospital in St. Louis, and the author of “Infection Control for Dummies.”

With whooping cough on the rise, building service contractors need to intensify cleaning and disinfecting efforts — just as they would during cold and flu season.

“I think to keep a lid on [whooping cough], you need to increase the frequency of sanitizing and disinfecting,” says Hicks.

Since pertussis presents the most danger to children, schools are one market that should increase cleaning frequencies to prevent the threat of whooping cough.

Diane Emo, vice president of marketing for Coverall Health-Based Cleaning System in Deerfield Beach, Fla., recalls an outbreak of whooping cough in Cook County, Ill., that forced a school district to ramp up its cleaning and disinfecting efforts.

“They actually shut down the school district for an extended period of time over Thanksgiving to make sure they took precautions to prevent whooping cough,” says Emo.

To prevent cross-contamination, janitors should focus on commonly touched surfaces.

“When I see alerts from the CDC about something that could be epidemic, we intensify our cleaning efforts,” says Doug Coleman, coordinator-custodial services, Rockwood School District, St. Louis. “Things we would clean weekly we do daily, like desktops, door handles and anything else the children or staff might touch.”

Kassandra Kania is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C. She is a frequent contributor to Contracting Profits.