By Michael McCarthy
The number of cases of whooping cough, or pertussis, reported in Washington state this year has topped 4,500 — the highest number reported in 70 years — but the epidemic appears to be slowing as the number of new cases being reported has begun to drop off, Washington State Department of Health officials reported last week.
Nonetheless, health officials warned, the bacteria that causes whooping cough — Bordetella pertussis — is still actively circulating in the community and the risk of infection remains real.
"We're encouraged to see the pace of new cases in our state slowing," said Secretary of Health Mary Selecky," but we are not completely out of the woods."
To date, the counties with the highest rates on infection have been: Ferry, Jefferson, Lewis, Pierce, San Juan, Skagit, Stevens, Walla Walla, Whatcom, and Yakima.
Even when cases fall, health officials noted, the bacteria always continues to circulate and cause infections even when there is no epidemic.
Therefore it is important for young children, teens and adults to get vaccinated and keep up-to-date with recommended booster shots, health officials said.
Vaccination not only helps protect individuals from the infection, it helps protect newborns who cannot be vaccinated until they're 2 months old and who aren't fully protected until they've had four doses, at 15 to 18 months.
Whooping cough is particularly dangerous for babies.
An infant with whooping cough may have trouble feeding and breathing and may turn bluish from not getting enough oxygen — and the infection can even be fatal, health officials said.
Older babies and kids with whooping cough often have coughing spells so severe that it's hard for them to eat, drink, breathe, and sleep.
This year in Washington 339 infants under one year of age developed whooping cough, 66 of whom were hospitalized.
Infection rates have also been high among adolescents, aged 10 to 13, who have made up 22 percent of cases.
When a baby gets whooping cough, it is usually from a sibling or an adult member of the family, health officials said. The best way to protect these vulnerable children, they said, is to have everyone around them be up-to-date with their vaccinations.
"With family and friends gathering for the holidays, disease can spread easily. It's important for adults and teens to be current on their whooping cough vaccines to protect babies from this serious illness," said Selecky. "And of course, remember to wash your hands often, cover your cough, and stay home when you're sick."
The Washington State Department of Health recommends:
All adults should get a one-time booster, and kids should get their whooping cough vaccinations on schedule. It's a five-dose series that starts when they're 2 months old and is complete before age 7. They need one booster at age 11 or 12.
How do I get a vaccine?
Washington purchases and provides all recommended vaccines for kids through age 18, available from health care providers across the state.
Health care providers may charge an office visit fee and a fee to give the vaccine (an administration fee). People who can’t afford the administration fee can ask to have it waived.
Over the summer the state also purchased whooping cough vaccine for uninsured and underinsured adults — many local health agencies still have that vaccine available.
For help finding a provider or immunization clinic, contact your local health agency or the Family Health Hotline at 1-800-322-2588 or visit Parent Health 123.
More information, including weekly case counts, is available on the Department of Health’s whooping cough website.
Read more about federal health investigators' inquiry into efficacy of vaccines.