Pertussis causes nearly 300 000 deaths in children every year. Most deaths take place in developing countries, but the infection remains a priority everywhere. Pertussis vaccination protects infants and children against death and admission to hospital, but breakthrough disease in vaccinated people can happen. In high-mortality countries, the challenge is to improve timeliness and coverage of childhood vaccination and surveillance. In regions with low mortality and highest coverage, pertussis is frequently the least well-controlled disease in childhood vaccination programmes. Some countries have reported a rise in pertussis in adolescents, adults, and pre-vaccination infants, but how much these changes are real or a result of improved recognition and surveillance remains uncertain. In response, several countries have introduced adolescent and adult acellular pertussis vaccine boosters. The effect so far is unknown; assessment is impeded by poor data. Uncertainties still persist about key variables needed to model and design vaccination programmes, such as risk of transmission from adults and adolescents to infants. New vaccination strategies under investigation include vaccination of neonates, family members, and pregnant women.