By sequencing some 343 strains of Bordetella pertussis collected in 19 different countries between 1920 and 2010, researchers led by Frits Mooi from the National Institute of Public Health and the Environment in The Netherlands constructed a phylogeny for the pathogen, as they report in mBio.
In this whooping cough family tree, the researchers noted a deep, large branch: One of those branches included 98 percent of the strains and arose sometime in the 16th century.
"That isn't very long ago," co-author Julian Parkhill from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute tells NPR's Shots blog.
"[Whooping cough is] not mentioned in any of the Ancient Greek or any of the Ancient Egyptian records, or anything like that," he adds. NPR notes that its first mention appears to have been in a 15th century Korean medical text and the first documented epidemic was in Paris in 1578.
The researchers also note new strains of B. pertussis have spread rapidly across the globe and that they are evolving in the face of the vaccine against the disease. Because of that, NPR notes, the vaccine isn't as effective as it used to be. But Parkhill says that having this genetic data about the strains could help beef the vaccine up.