Objective. Although universal immunization against Bordetella pertussis (whooping cough) infection has resulted in dramatic reductions in the incidence of pertussis, outbreaks continue to occur in countries with excellent vaccine coverage. Treatment of infection may ameliorate symptom severity during the catarrhal phase of pertussis but has no effect on established paroxysms, emesis, or apnea if given during the paroxysmal or convalescent phases. Erythromycin, recommended for treatment of pertussis to prevent transmission of infection, is poorly tolerated because of gastrointestinal side effects. We compared the safety and efficacy of erythromycin with azithromycin for treatment of pertussis in a large, randomized, controlled trial that enrolled children from primary care practices in 1 American and 11 Canadian urban centers.
Methods. Children who were 6 months to 16 years of age and had cough illness that was suspected to be or was culture confirmed as pertussis were randomized to azithromycin (10 mg/kg on day 1 and 5 mg/kg on days 2–5 as a single dose) or erythromycin estolate (40 mg/kg/day in 3 divided doses for 10 days) with stratification by center. The primary outcome measure was bacteriologic cure of infection as determined by cultures of nasopharyngeal aspirates. Culture-positive participants had a second aspirate collected at the end of therapy (days 5–7 for azithromycin, days 10–12 for erythromycin) and 1 week after therapy. Bacteriologic cure was defined as negative cultures at the end of therapy. Bacteriologic relapse was defined as a positive culture 1 week after completion of therapy and after a negative end-of-therapy culture. Secondary outcomes were pertussis diagnosed by serology and polymerase chain reaction (PCR), treatment-associated adverse events, compliance, and presence of clinical symptoms at the end of the treatment course. Serology was performed using standard enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay methods. A participant was considered to have pertussis when the PCR was positive or a 4-fold increase in pertussis toxin antibody between baseline and follow-up visits was observed. PCR was performed using a 1046-bp ClaI DNA fragment from B pertussis. Adverse events (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, any gastrointestinal complaint, or other) were determined by a parent-completed diary that was reviewed with study personnel during study visits. Compliance was measured by review of the parent medication diary during study visits and observation of medication containers by the pharmacist at study completion. Symptoms were determined by history collected by study personnel at enrollment and subsequently from the diary. The design of the study was an equivalence trial, aimed at demonstrating that the bacteriologic failure rates with the 2 therapies did not differ by >8%. For the safety analysis, all participants who received at least 1 dose of study drug were included. In the per-protocol efficacy analysis, all culture-positive participants with end-of-treatment cultures were considered.
Results. A total of 477 children were enrolled and randomly assigned to either azithromycin (n = 239) or erythromycin (n = 238). Of these children, 114 (24%) grew B pertussis from nasopharyngeal specimens (azithromycin group: 58 of 239 [24%]; erythromycin group: 56 of 238 [23%]); these children composed the efficacy cohort for the per-protocol and intention-to-treat analyses. Serology and PCR added 52 children to the number considered to have pertussis for a total of 35% (166 of 477) of all children who presented with cough illness. In the safety analysis (antibiotic side effects, compliance) and comparison of cough symptoms after treatment, all randomized children are reported in their assigned treatment group. At end of therapy, bacterial eradication was demonstrated in all 53 patients in the azithromycin group and all 53 patients in the erythromycin group with follow-up cultures available (eradication 100%; 95% confidence interval [CI]: 93.3–100). No bacterial recurrence was demonstrated in children with 1 week posttreatment nasopharyngeal cultures available (51 and 53 participants in the azithromycin and erythromycin arms, respectively [0%, 95% CI: 0–7.0; and 0%, 95% CI: 0–6.7]). No serious adverse events attributable to study drug were observed. Gastrointestinal adverse events were reported less frequently in azithromycin (18.8%; 45 of 239) than in erythromycin estolate (41.2%; 98 of 238) recipients (90% CI on difference: −29.0% to −15.7%) as a result of less nausea (2.9% vs 8.4%; 95% CI: −8.9% to −2.0%), less vomiting (5.0% vs 13.0%; 95% CI: −4.9% to −1.4%), and less diarrhea (7.1% vs 11.8%; 95% CI: −9.0% to −0.3%). Children who were randomized to azithromycin were much more likely to have complied with antimicrobial therapy over the treatment period. In the azithromycin group, 90% of children took 100% of prescribed doses, whereas only 55% of children in the erythromycin group took 100% of prescribed doses.
Conclusions. In this large, multicenter, randomized trial, we found that azithromycin is as effective as erythromycin estolate for the treatment of pertussis in children. Gastrointestinal adverse events were much more common with erythromycin treatment than azithromycin. Compliance with therapy was markedly better with azithromycin than with erythromycin in this study.